Kickoff is at 7:00 pm, so I’ll keep this short, sweet, and to the point as much as my rambling self can.
#1 – Jon Beason – Beason is the top Panther player to watch in this particular game because of his return from a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in game one of last year. Don’t confuse an Achilles tear with an ACL/MCL tear as they are two completely different animals as far as the recovery process goes. Athletes often lose a step after an Achilles injury, so keep an eye on the MLB to see if he still has the range and speed he had before the injury.
#2 – Luke Kuechly – No matter how his name is spelled on his jersey, fans will certainly be able to spot him at the weakside linebacker position. He was Boston College’s all-time leading tackler with 532 and was approaching the NCAA all-time record held by Northwestern’s Tim McGarigle with 545 but the lack of a bowl bid for BC ended his chances. He also has great hands for a linebacker with 7 career interceptions and made an over-the-shoulder interception of teammate Cam Newton in camp, proving the college statistics weren’t a fluke. The only thing coaches, teammates and fans alike want to see is how well he can rush the passer, so watch him on second and third and long and on any plays that he may be blitzing on.
#3 – Joe Adams – The fourth-round pick from Arkansas is expected to return punts and/or kickoffs and was an electrifying punt returner at Arkansas. His 60-yard punt return against Tennessee last year is arguably the top highlight play of the entire season anywhere, so it should be fun to watch him and see how he does in a real game. Also watch for him as a slot receiver in the offense as he brings sub-4.4 speed and eye-popping change of direction skills to the field.
#4 – Amini Silatolu – I LOVE this guy! He played LT at tiny Midwestern State and completely dominated. He lacks the lateral agility needed to consistently block some of the better speed-rushers but his game is tailor-made as an NFL guard. I’ve said from the beginning that he’s a NASTY run-blocker who attacks his assignment as if the other guy just made questionable statements about his mother. He hits VERY hard, engages pretty well, and finishes through the whistle. While he still needs to hone his pass-protection skills some more, I can name you two teammates that I’m sure already adore the guy: DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
#5 – the defensive tackles – Ron Edwards missed his entire first season as a Panther in 2011 with a torn triceps. 2011 rookies Sione Fua and Terrell McClain both landed on IR in the second half of the season as well, and with the injuries to the Panthers’ front seven last season, the need to improve their rush defense is of paramount importance this season. The initial preseason game against the Texans should provide immediate feedback to coaches as to how well or how poorly things are progressing. Look for the starters on both sides to play the first quarter, and if the Panthers can keep the likes of Arian Foster or Ben Tate corralled, it’ll be a sign that the middle isn’t the easy track to the endzone for offenses.
As such, there are still a lot of things Panthers’ Head Coach Ron Rivera needs to see progress with. Will Beason be the player Pro bowl-caliber player he was in 2010 and before? Will 181-pound Joe Adams be able to do much in the offense as a receiver? Has Luke Kuechly learned enough tools to be a competent pass-rusher?
Not all the questions will be answered tonight, but the picture should begin to clear a bit. The game is on the NFL Network and “locals” to the Charlotte area should check their Fox affiliate for the game.
We won’t have to wait long. The future begins to take shape tonight.