What to watch for in Panthers’ preseason opener

Carolina will play its first exhibition game in two years on Sunday against the Colts

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, left, and linebacker Shaq Thompson talk at practice during the NFL football team's training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

The Carolina Panthers will play their first preseason game in 717 days when they travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts on Sunday.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s exhibition schedule, but the preseason is back this year — although one game shorter than in previous seasons.


In addition to getting their pro football fix, Panthers fans will have plenty of areas of concern to focus on while watching the preseason opener.

The last veteran: Shaq Thompson is one of the last holdovers from the Super Bowl team, and the longtime linebacker is expected to play a key role in the middle of this year’s defense — as he always has.

Unfortunately, Thompson has been off the field more than on it this preseason as he’s battled injury and been held out of practice for long stretches. There’s a good chance he’ll be held out of the Colts game as a precaution, but he should at least be on the sideline and would be a good target for a midgame interview.

Other last hurrahs: Another player from the Super Bowl team is in a dogfight for his job and a roster spot. J.J. Jansen, who has been the team’s long snapper and a special teams whiz for 14 years, is getting pushed by a rookie out of Alabama, Thomas Fletcher.

Jansen is one of four players over age 30 on the roster. Center Matt Paradis is probably the safest of the old-timers. Corner Rashaan Melvin also probably has a secure grip on a spot. Linebacker Julian Stanford was praised by the coaches early in camp, but he’ll likely need to continue his strong play to secure a roster spot.

Younger veterans who may be fighting for a spot on the roster include defensive tackle Caraun Reid, end Marquis Haynes, tight end Ian Thomas and receiver Brandon Zylstra.

The long shots: The flip side of the last hurrahs are the Rudy stories — the undrafted kids signed to be training camp fodder who somehow do enough to earn their way onto an NFL roster.

Wide receiver C.J. Saunders is perhaps the most improbable story. He walked on at Ohio State and had just 27 career catches in 16 games over four years. He was denied an extra year of eligibility last season and spent 2020 as a graduate assistant on the Buckeyes’ staff. After failing to catch the Falcons’ eye in a tryout this spring, he came to Panthers camp and has starred.

“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where C.J. Saunders doesn’t make a play,” coach Matt Rhule said.

Linebacker Paddy Fisher starred at Northwestern, logging over 400 tackles in four years. He went undrafted, however, and signed with Carolina. So far, so good. He’s done well in camp, including making a series of impressive big plays on goal-line stand drills. Linebacker is a spot where the Panthers could use depth, so the door is open for Fisher depending on how he does in the preseason games.

The quarterbacks: It’s hard to get too far into a discussion of the 2021 Panthers without hitting on the most important position on offense. The season will go a long way toward determining if Carolina has its quarterback of the future or will be looking to upgrade the spot again. Sam Darnold likely won’t get much more than a cup of coffee in the game, but it will be fans’ first look at him in a Panthers uniform. Then the rest of the night will be devoted to the PJ Walker-vs.-Wil Grier battle for the backup spot.

The new guys: Cornerback Jaycee Horn has made a string of big plays in camp, and the first-round pick will be making his Panthers gameday debut on Sunday. Fourth-round running back Chuba Hubbard and third-round offensive tackle Brady Christensen have both earned praise from coach Rhule, as has second-rounder Terrace Marshall and sixth-rounder Shi Smith at receiver and fifth-round defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon.

It will also be the first game in a Panthers helmet for veteran offseason pickups like pass rushers Morgan Fox and Haason Reddick, linebacker Denzel Perryman and corner AJ Bouye on defense and receiver David Moore, tight end Dan Arnold and linemen Cameron Erving and Pat Elflein on offense.

Locals: As the starters head to the bench early and the rest of the game is devoted to sorting out the depth chart, fans can pore over the game film to try to catch sight of some of the local products on the roster, including NC State safety Juston Burris and App State safety Doug Middleton.