Last Sunday’s preseason opener was the first chance for fans to see the 2021 Carolina Panthers in action. For most of the players expected to be key contributors, however, the wait continues.
The Panthers benched virtually the entire starting lineup on both sides of the ball, including veteran leaders Christian McCaffrey, Shaq Thompson and DJ Moore, as well as the entire offensive line and receiving corps.
Most importantly, the team sat Sam Darnold, who is expected to be the team’s starting quarterback after being acquired from the Jets.
The team decided Darnold, who struggled through his first three NFL seasons, didn’t need the game reps even though 44-year-old Hall of Famer Tom Brady, coming off a Super Bowl championship, took a few snaps in his preseason opener.
Several young Panthers and players fighting for jobs benefited from the expanded playing time with all the starters sitting. Here’s who stood out — in either a positive or negative direction — in the 21-18 loss in Indianapolis, and what we now know about the team.
The long-snapper battle
Veteran J.J. Jansen is being pushed by rookie Thomas Fletcher. Jansen is one of the few remaining ties to the Panthers’ last Super Bowl team, but he’s also one of the few remaining Panthers over 30, which puts a bull’s-eye on him.
Each snapper got a half to show their stuff. Jansen went first and had multiple field goal attempts and punts without incident. Barring a major meltdown, it’s tough for a long snapper to make an impression in such limited opportunity.
Fletcher found a way, however. In addition to being perfect on all of his second-half snaps, he was one of the first players downfield on a muffed punt that was recovered by Carolina. While Fletcher didn’t get credited with the recovery, he was at the bottom of the pile, making sure the Panthers recovered.
With Darnold held out, PJ Walker got the start and played the first half, with Will Grier taking the second half.
Walker scored a clear win in the competition with Grier, passing for 161 yards on 10-of-21 accuracy with a touchdown. Grier was 6 of 10 for 31 yards. The eye test was favorable for Walker, however, who appeared comfortable with the offense and spread the ball around, taking downfield shots and showing exceptional mobility in the pocket. Walker struggled with downfield accuracy, throwing behind and above receivers, particularly in the end zone. He also showed a troubling willingness to throw into double and triple coverage.
Grier was more reserved and relied on short, safe dump-offs. Half of his passes were to tight ends, and eight of his 10 throws were categorized as “short” in the official play-by-play. He also had three scrambles and a sack, failing to find the open man when the pocket collapsed as Walker did on multiple occasions.
Other than first-rounder Jaycee Horn, every Panthers draft pick saw action.
Second-round wide receiver Terrace Marshall started and had a highlight play when he broke off of his route and went upfield on a Walker scramble for a 60-yard catch. He was targeted five times, and the two he didn’t catch were bad throws by Walker.
Third-round offensive tackle Brady Christensen played the entire game, starting at right tackle and moving to left guard in the fourth quarter. He gave up one quarterback pressure early but otherwise handled his man efficiently and was frequently the lineman that backs chose to follow on run plays.
Third-round tight end Tommy Tremble started and also played on the opening kickoff. He had a good lead block on a red zone run to set up a field goal, had a third-down catch in the second quarter and then got open in the back of the end zone for the team’s only touchdown of the day. Tremble, however, was flagged for holding on the ensuing two-point attempt.
Fourth-round running back Chuba Hubbard also started and struggled, losing yardage on two of his first four runs. He changed directions in the backfield on most of his carries, which is either a habit he needs to break quickly or an indictment of the line (possibly both). He also fell down on a reception and dropped another screen. His one highlight was a bounce off the pile in the center of the line for a 59-yard gain.
Fifth-round defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon started and had a good push up the middle on most snaps. He showed energy and played into the second half. While he looked good on tape, it didn’t translate into any tackles. He’ll need to work on finishing, but it was an encouraging first outing.
Fifth-round cornerback Keith Taylor had a pass breakup in the second quarter but was beaten badly on a pass inside the two-minute warning. He suffered an injury in the second half.
Sixth-round wide receiver Shi Smith had an impressive sideline catch late in the first half to set up a touchdown. That was his lone highlight in 15 snaps as he struggled to get open. He also didn’t play on special teams, which could be a red flag in his quest to make the roster.
Sixth-round guard Deonte Brown got the start at right guard and didn’t have any high-profile blown blocks. He suffered an injury on Hubbard’s long run in the second quarter, however, and finished with just 21 snaps.
Seventh-round defensive tackle Phil Hoskins was, other than Christensen, the top-performing draft pick in the game. He had a good push on most of his snaps, was the second man in on a tackle for loss and got a tackle for loss of his own in the second quarter. He also showed an ability to run plays down from behind and drew a holding flag on a Colts lineman. He flushed the quarterback from the pocket on Indianapolis’ game-winning drive. His lone black mark was getting blocked to the ground on Indy’s game-tying two-point conversion.
Paddy Fisher: The undrafted linebacker didn’t get his name called much, but he always seemed to be around the ball and only four Panthers logged more snaps on defense. He also added a dozen special teams snaps.
Marquis Haynes: The veteran defensive end was a possible roster bubble player, but he was active and productive, hitting the quarterback on the game’s second snap, showing an ability to drop into coverage and roam across the field to make tackles. He also got a strip sack and recovery.
Trent Scott: The veteran lineman had a disastrous day at left tackle, picking up two penalties and generally looking overmatched.
Julian Stanford and Ian Thomas: The veteran linebacker and tight end are both on the roster bubble and neither played in the game. It’s likely not because they were considered potential starters along with the rest of the holdouts.
Stantley Thomas-Oliver: The cornerback was beaten consistently on the first drive and was targeted by Colts quarterbacks all game, showing who they thought was the weak link. He also missed a tackle in the backfield.
Yetur Gross-Matos: He had a sack and another tackle in 41 snaps on defense. It wasn’t a disastrous day, but he didn’t show any flash of the playmaker he was expected to be when drafted. Colts blockers seemed to have him handled most of the day.