Takeaways from Panthers’ preseason win

A roundup of rookies, position battles and what you need to know

Aug 9, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers kicker Harrison Butker (7) adds an extra point against the Houston Texans during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers beat the Houston Texans, 27-17, in their preseason opener at Bank of America Stadium. While snaps were extremely limited for the starters, the game still started providing answers to some of the questions swirling around the team as the 2017 season looms. Here’s what you need to know about the preseason opener:

How did the stars look?

Cam Newton, who has been battling injury throughout the preseason, didn’t play, giving backup Derek Anderson the start. Panthers legend Julius Peppers, who rejoined the team in the offseason, also sat out the game.

The starters who did suit up saw a very early end to their night. Running back Jonathan Stewart had two carries for four yards. Tight end Greg Olson had an impressive 32-yard catch over the middle. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was in on one tackle.

Is Kelvin Benjamin in midseason shape?

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin stirred up the offseason rumor mill, when photos of him looking very heavy surfaced on the internet.

Any candy coating Benjamin added after last season was long gone by game time. There was no sign of flab or stretch in his jersey.

His play on the field provided even more convincing proof that Benjamin is ready to go. He had bullied tacklers out of the way to turn a four-yard catch into a 17-yard gain. Later in the first quarter, he stretched upward while backpedaling into the end zone to out-fight a cornerback for a touchdown.

How did the draft picks look?

Running back Christian McCaffrey was the team’s first-round choice in this spring’s draft. He was on the field in the first quarter, with the starters, and had seven carries for 33 yards. McCaffrey seemed a little hesitant on runs up the middle, but he showed his burst of speed when given the opportunity to go around the end.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound McCaffrey also showed that he’s big enough to help with pass protection, picking up Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Cushing on a Houston blitz.

Ohio State receiver Curtis Samuel, the team’s second-round pick, and Miami corner Corn Elder, a fifth-rounder, both sat out with injuries—hamstring for Samuel and knee for Elder.

Offensive lineman Taylor Moton, picked up by the Panthers with the team’s second pick in the second round, showed that he could make an immediate impact. Moton started the evening at left guard, then moved to right tackle—where he’s battling veteran Darryl Williams for the starting job—in the second quarter.

At both positions, Moton showed very clean blocking, neutralizing his man in pass protection and clearing paths on the run. Moton also showed good mobility, pulling frequently from his left guard spot.

Defensive end Daeshon Hall, a third-rounder out of Texas A&M, entered the game with five minutes remaining in the first quarter. True to his pre-draft scouting report, he showed speed, but size might be a concern. Hall was able to change directions quickly and pressure mobile rookie quarterback Dashon Watson when he rolled out of the pocket. He also showed an ability to cover tight ends on short pass plays, picking up a pass-breakup in the second half. On plays when Watson stayed in the pocket, however, Hall was often stopped in his tracks by blockers. Hall also got knocked off his feet twice by linemen.

Sixth-rounder Alex Armah was drafted as a fullback out of West Georgia. The team doesn’t make frequent use of a two-back formation, which could hurt his ability to see the field. Armah entered the game at the end of the third quarter and appeared in a handful of plays, blocking well as he cleared a path for tailback Jalen Simmons. He also was in on the second-half field goal team, although he’ll likely need to have a bigger special teams role if he hopes to earn a spot on the roster.

The Panthers picked kicker Harrison Butker in the seventh round, and the Georgia Tech product is pushing veteran Graham Gano. Butker got his chance in the second half, hitting a PAT and a 51-yard field goal. He had one touchback on kickoffs but gave up a 15-yard return when his second kickoff only made it to the four.

Any update on position battles?

Right tackle: Williams started at right tackle and didn’t make any glaring errors, likely allowing him to maintain his early lead over the rookie Moton.

Kicker: Gano had two PATs and a 45-yard field goal. He hit the upright on a 50-yard attempt. On kickoffs, Gano’s specialty, he had two touchbacks. However, Houston returned one that went midway into the end zone, and he sent another kick to the 10.

Punter: Newcomer Michael Palardy and incumbent Andy Lee each got two punts. Palardy had a 51 yarder and a 41-yarder, sending both inside the 20. Lee’s punts went for 40 and 32 yards, giving Palardy a big early lead.

Third wide receiver: With Samuel out due to injury, Russell Shepard had the chance to pull away in the competition. He didn’t do much with the opportunity, however, finishing without a catch and rarely getting open enough to become a target.

Slot cornerback: Returning veteran Captain Munnerlyn got first crack at the spot, getting one tackle. Second-year Panther Zack Sanchez struggled a bit, getting beaten badly by the tight end once, although Watson overthrew his target, allowing Sanchez to save face, somewhat.

Safety depth: Colin Jones was the first to see the field, getting two solo tackles and two assists. He also got bulled into the end zone on a Texans’ touchdown run.

Dezmen Southward was next and had a mixed bag on the night. He had a good hit on the second series of the game and followed up with a nice open-field tackle. He missed a tackle on the touchdown run, however and later missed a tackle on a long pass reception.

L.J. McCray didn’t get into the game until very late, but he did well, getting a good hit on the quarterback on a blitz and laying out a receiver on a long reception.

How did the local college guys do?

Duke linebacker Jeremy Cash entered the game in the third series. He promptly got his hands on a fumble, ran down a receiver from behind and pressured the quarterback on a third-and-goal incompletion. He also went offside on a blitz.

ECU linebacker Zeek Bigger made a tackle on kickoff coverage, blitzed on a play that resulted in a sack and made several tackles late, including a sack on a blitz. He also picked up a blocking penalty on a punt return.

NC State receiver Trevor Grahm was on the kickoff return team in the second half and lined up at wideout late in the third quarter. He was targeted once, on a pass that was broken up in the end zone.

Charlotte receiver Austin Duke had a slow start, with drops on his first two targets, including one that nearly cost the team seven points, when it was initially ruled a fumble. He recovered with a good punt return (wiped out by a return team penalty) and made two long catches, including one over the middle in double coverage.