NFL Preview: Plenty to watch in Panthers opener against Dallas

Injuries, a suspension and a new offensive coordinator are Carolina’s question marks

While Cam Newton will still be the focal point of the Panthers offense, running back Christian McCaffrey will play a bigger role in 2018. (Adrian Kraus / AP Photo)

The NFL season kicks off Thursday, and here’s everything you need to prepare for the NFL season: an AFC preview; a look at the Eagles’ path to a repeat in the NFC preview; and checking in around the league at some of the players from North Carolina schools.

The Carolina Panthers will open their 2018 season at home against Dallas on Sunday in the national late-afternoon game.

Both teams have plenty of star power to fill the spotlight that game provides. Quarterbacks Cam Newton and Dak Prescott, running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey and linebacker Luke Kuechly will give Fox plenty of well-known faces to show during the game. 

Even without the A-list opponent, the Panthers would have plenty of intriguing narratives coming out of training camp. Since the last time they played a game that counts, the Panthers have changed owners and offenses, and quelled a feud between former receiver Kelvin Benjamin and their quarterback. 

Here’s a look at the top storylines for Carolina heading into the season:

New-look offense

Sunday will give us the first look at Cam Newton running the full Norv Turner offense. In the brief taste the Panthers gave us at the start of three preseason games (Newton sat out the fourth, at Pittsburgh), the returns were promising.

Newton completed 68 percent of his passes and averaged 8.3 yards per pass. Both were significant improvements over his career stats. In his 11 drives, Newton led the Panthers to three touchdowns, three field goals, four punts and an interception.

Turner will be going against the team with which he made his name, as offensive coordinator of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl teams of the early 1990s. He helped Troy Aikman develop into a Hall of Famer and will now try to work magic with Newton.

Newton’s backup will be Taylor Heinicke, who won the job in a training camp battle against Garrett Gilbert.

“Athleticism and the ability to run pretty much everything we do,” coach Ron Rivera said of the factors that won Heinicke the job. “With Taylor, you’re not going to have to pare certain things down.”

Line in flux

The Panthers thought they had two vacancies on the offensive line — left guard and right tackle — in training camp. Now, after final cuts and the start of game week, it appears that things may be changing. Darryl Williams, who went down with a knee injury early in camp, returned to practice. He and the team are being coy about whether or not he’s ready to play on Sunday. “They’ve got me out there practicing,” he said. “That’s all I know. They ain’t telling me nothing. I’m just practicing.”

The team is being cautious with him, but he’s listed as the starter on the depth chart. That means the camp-long competition for his right guard spot gets flipped to the other side, where Taylor Moten, who appeared to win the job in camp, and Corey Robinson, acquired on a cut-down-day trade from Detroit, will replace Matt Kalil. The brother of center Ryan Kalil was put on IR the day after cuts and will sit out at least the first eight games.

Having a floating vacancy on the line is something the team prepared for. The Panthers brought in linemen for “their football IQ, how bright and smart they are,” Rivera said. “Guys that have that can adjust quickly from going from one side to the other. Having a skill set that allows them to play right or left, inside or out. You’ve heard me talk about position flexibility — having that kind of versatility.”

Linebacker vacancy

After playing through the preseason, linebacker Thomas Davis must now sit out the first four games after getting hit with a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. While Luke Kuechly gets the local security company commercials and is the face of the defense. Davis, playing right next to him, was a key component as well, finishing second to Kuechly in linebacker tackles last season.

For the first quarter of the season, the Panthers will have to find a way to live without Davis. The team plans to shift Shaq Thompson from the weak-side linebacker spot to the hole Davis left in the middle. Again, the team brought Thompson in as the first-round pick in 2015 for a situation just like this.

“We drafted Shaq with this in mind,” Rivera said. “In 2014, we had a game — Baltimore — where Thomas didn’t play, and we lacked that outright speed, other than Luke. You need to have a second guy that can run. Shaq’s that guy for us. That’s why Shaq is here, with that in mind: If we ever had to play a game without Thomas, we could still have two guys that can run.”

Longtime backup David Mayo will likely step into Thompson’s old weak-side role.