The Carolina Panthers will open the 2019 season this Sunday against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams.
It’s a tough start for a team looking to get off on the right foot this year to help erase the memory of last year’s stretch run when a 6-2 start dissolved into a 7-9 year, thanks to a seven-game losing streak.
There are heightened expectations in Carolina, with Cam Newton seemingly recovered from the shoulder problem that plagued him the second half of last season.
A fully functional Newton should help the Panthers move up in the total offense rankings (10th last year) and passing rankings (17th).
Newton is surrounded by a roster that’s changing around him. Gone are longtime veterans Julius Peppers and Thomas Davis on defense, as well as the only center he’s had as a pro — Ryan Kalil.
The team had some high-profile additions during the offseason to help shore up the roster. The pass rush should also be better with the additions of free agents Gerald McCoy and Bruce Irvin, as well as first-round draft pick Brian Burns.
The offensive line also got a revamp, with the addition of veteran center Matt Paradis and devoting the second-round draft pick to tackle Greg Little.
The change continued as the team moved through training camp to final cuts.
For the first time since 2011, the Panthers will have someone other than Graham Gano lining up for field goals. Gano has battled a leg injury all preseason, and the team ended up placing him on injured reserve, meaning he’s out for the entire season.
“His leg stayed the same,” coach Ron Rivera explained. “The pain was still there. It was the safest thing to do going forward.”
In his place will be rookie Joey Slye, a former undrafted free agent and NFL nomad out of Virginia Tech. Slye joked that he only packed enough clothes for a week when he first came to camp, assuming he was a placeholder until Gano returned.
Instead, he made seven of eight field goals in preseason and will need to send out for the rest of his wardrobe.
“The guys all understand the whole thing with Graham, with the injury,” Rivera said. “We’ve got a guy that came in — it’s a feel-good story, but at the same time, he earned it. We’re very confident he’s going to come in and do his job.”
Several other surprise players made the team, including undrafted free agent Jordan Kunaszyk, a linebacker out of Cal, and Reggie Bonnafon, a quarterback turned running back who spent last season on the practice squad.
“Guys come in and do things the right way, and a lot of times, it’s about that (as much as) your skillset and abilities,” Rivera said. “What separates you from the other young guys that come in is that both of them are guys that do a lot of extra things. They do things the right way, and you hope the guys around them see that and learn from it.”
Even after cuts were made and the 53-man roster was set, the Panthers continued to maneuver. Carolina brought in Ray-Ray McCloud, who didn’t survive cuts in Buffalo. The Clemson product got into 10 games with the Bills last season and is now listed as the Panthers’ primary kickoff and punt returner.
The Bills and Panthers had a week of joint practices before a preseason game last month, but Rivera said the team’s interest in McCloud goes back farther than that.
“We saw some of the things he did coming into the league a year ago,” he said. “We knew a little about him and liked him coming into the draft, but we didn’t get the opportunity to get him here. … We had him targeted, but Buffalo took him. You like to keep an eye on things like that.”
Rivera and GM Marty Hurney were impressed with McCloud’s tape from the entire preseason, not just what they saw in person.
“We saw the things he did through training camp and through the games he played,” Rivera said. “Not just what we saw in the joint practices but what we saw in his play. … We feel like he’s somebody who can come in and contribute. He could come in and give us a little bit of a jolt on special teams.”
So while the returnees like Luke Kuechly, Christian McCaffrey and Newton will share top billing with the high-profile newcomers, it’s some of the key decisions made at the other end of the roster that could end up determining the Panthers’ level of success.