Panthers give rookies extended look during preseason opener

Sorting through the film after 20 starters sit out game in Chicago

Carolina Panthers defensive end and first-round pick Brian Burns had two sacks in the preseason opener against the Bears last Thursday in Chicago. (Mark Black / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers moved to 1-0 on the preseason with a 23-13 win at Chicago in their preseason opener.

The game gave the team plenty of opportunity to look at young players. Of the 22 players listed as offensive and defensive starters on Carolina’s opening depth chart, 20 did not play in the game. Fullback Alex Armah and newly signed safety Tre Boston were the only ones to suit up.

Here’s a look at how the rookies and other players involved in position battles helped or hurt their cause in their first preseason action.

Defensive rookies and position battles

First-round draft pick Brian Burns started at the edge rushing position in the Panthers’ new 3-4 defense. Unlike a traditional end, he tended to avoid engaging blockers, instead seeming to hang back for a beat, much like a player in the “spy” role against a scrambling quarterback. The approach worked — he was able to get into position to take down the quarterback when he tried to leave the pocket under pressure elsewhere. His second sack came when he was able to bring down the quarterback on a rollout.

Fourth-rounder Christian Miller replaced Burns in the second quarter after getting in on special teams in the first. He played a more traditional end spot, rushing the quarterback and tangling with tackles and tight ends in an effort to collapse the pocket. He forced the tight end into a holding penalty on his first defensive snap and had another forced holding penalty on a tight end later in the game. Both were on run plays. Miller also dropped into coverage on occasion but was never tested with a pass. His pass rushing had mixed results. He was blocked to the ground on one play in the third quarter, but later he flushed the quarterback after losing his blocker with a nice spin move in the backfield.

Boston was listed as the starter at free safety but didn’t play defense until the second quarter. Ross Cockrell (strong) and Colin Jones (free) got the starts at the two safety spots. His only notable play was just before halftime, when he was seen chasing a receiver on a pass over the middle, but the blown coverage may not have been his fault. Rashaan Gaulden had a good game at safety, going step by step with the receiver for a pass breakup in the end zone, hitting the quarterback once and punching loose the ball for a fumble while tackling a running back. Cole Luke played late in the game and had a pass breakup on a long ball.

Offensive rookies and position battles

Second-rounder Greg Little got the start at left tackle, with sixth-rounder Dennis Daley next to him at left guard. That was too much youth on one side, as the pair struggled early. Little lost his man on back-to-back plays on the second drive. He also overran his man on a run play and fell down trying to recover. Another blown block flushed the quarterback from the pocket.

Daley missed a block on his second play, forcing the quarterback out of the pocket. He was also blocking someone else when a rusher came through his gap to record a sack. He got downfield quickly on a screen play, then missed two guys while trying to block. He had another blown block that led to a tackle for loss in the second quarter and was bowled over while blocking on a field goal.

Perhaps they’ll do better next to a veteran, which we’ll likely see as the preseason goes on, but both have a long way to go to unseat tackle Daryl Williams and guard Greg Van Roten.

Third-rounder Will Grier struggled when he got the chance at quarterback in the second quarter. He had a few overthrows early and a miscommunication on a screen pass to rookie running back Elijah Holyfield that wasn’t close. He overthrew seventh-rounder Terry Godwin cutting across the middle, leading to an interception. Grier settled in, completed four straight to receivers at one point. He also showed his ability to scramble.

His numbers compared well to Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke, neither of whom took a major step forward in the three-way battle to back up Cam Newton.

Godwin had a strong game at receiver and punt returner, highlighted by a pair of long returns in the second half. Most of Godwin’s competition at slot receiver (Chris Hogan, Jarius Wright, Torrey Smith) didn’t play.

Fifth-round running back Jordan Scarlett didn’t play, giving Cameron Artis-Payne, Reggie Bonnafon (who also played special teams, springing Godwin with a block on one punt return) and Holyfield extended looks.