The Carolina Panthers seemed just inches away from having a successful season in 2018. Through eight weeks, the team was 6-2 and sitting near the top of the NFC South.
Then, the Panthers stumbled upon the Pittsburgh Steelers and everything went awry. The Steelers annihilated the Panthers 52-21 but the worst part of the game came when Cam Newton took a nasty hit from T.J. Watt.
After the hit, Newton winced in pain but he remained in the game until it was completely out of reach. From that moment on, the Panthers weren’t the same as Newton’s injury continued to worsen.
The Panthers won just one of their remaining eight games of the season and ended with a disappointing 7-9 record. Ron Rivera knew that the team was on the right track but an injury to Newton derailed their season.
This season, the dual-threat quarterback is making his return after undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder. The team has gotten younger and the coaching staff is anxious to see what their offense looks like in 2019.
The first chance that the Panthers will get to see their starting offense will come against the New England Patriots in Week 3 of the preseason. Here are three players to watch when the Panthers square off against the Patriots on Thursday.
3. Brian Burns
As the Panthers watched Julius Peppers walk away from football this offseason, they brought in an edge-rusher who has the potential to be something special in Brian Burns. Carolina spent their first-round pick on Burns out of Florida State.
In 2018, the Panthers front seven struggled to create consistent pressure on the quarterback. As a team, Carolina ranked 27th in the NFL in sacks with just 37 of them.
This season, Rivera has made it an emphasis for the defense to find ways into the backfield. The Panthers first-round pick has flashed his upside as a prominent sack-artist in training camp and it carried over into his preseason debut.
Against the Bears, Burns made his way to the quarterback twice to get his first two sacks of his professional career. The Panthers are hoping to see that sort of production from Burns when the stats are officially calculated. The rookie will get another opportunity to display his talent when the Panthers face the Patriots on Thursday.
2. Curtis Samuel
This offseason, Devin Funchess left for the Indianapolis Colts in free agency, leaving room for D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel to step into larger roles in the offense. For Samuel, he is entering his third season with the team and this may be the year he gets heavily involved in Carolina’s passing attack.
The Panthers selected Samuel with the 40th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Ohio State. The Ohio State product has mainly been utilized as a versatile weapon in the offense and on special teams.
In 2018, the elusive wide receiver caught a career-high 39 passes for 494 yards and five touchdowns. Samuel was also given eight carries and he scored on two of them.
This year, the Panthers want to open up their offense a bit more around Christian McCaffrey and Samuel has the speed to take the top off of a defense. Carolina could have a dangerous duo of receivers in 2019 with Moore and Samuel receiving a larger share of the targets.
1. Cam Newton
When the Panthers come out for pregame warmups, all eyes will be on Cam Newton as he plays in his first game since receiving shoulder surgery this offseason. As mentioned before, the former MVP quarterback suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 9 of the 2018 season.
Over the course of the offseason, the charismatic signal-caller has had to reinvent his throwing motion as he’s gradually worked himself back onto the field. Nonetheless, Carolina is comfortable starting their franchise quarterback for a few series against the Patriots.
This will be the first look that Rivera will get at the new version of Newton in a game setting. Additionally, Newton is entering his second season with Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator.
The whole weight of the offense rests on Newton’s shoulders to deliver at a high-level again. It’s likely that the Panthers have Newton throw quick passes to avoid any unwarranted hits. Despite it being a preseason game, many fans in Carolina will be tuning in to see how their quarterback has progressed from his injury.