May 12, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA Carolina Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander walks to the practice field during the afternoon workout session at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

Miami Dolphins at Carolina Panthers: Players to Watch

The second preseason game is nearly upon us, and the best thing about the preseason so far for the Panthers is that they’ve escaped major injury. Veteran quarterback David Garrard of the Dolphins is out for probably the rest of the preseason with a minor knee injury. He hurt it in an odd “freak” accident at home when he turned to look at one of his children when they were playing in the family’s swimming pool.

Ironically, other than his back, it’s Garrard’s first injury at 34. What it means is Matt Moore and rookie Ryan Tannehill will split time…Moore probably with the first team and Tannehill with the second.

August 10, 2012; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) throws a pass during the second half of the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Sun Life Stadium. Tampa Bay won the game 20-7. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

On the Miami side, Tannehill is the most glaring player to keep an eye on. I’ve seen him practice and throw, and the guy’s the Real Deal, folks. His style is in stark contrast to that of Chad Henne, the Michigan product who was released after a four-year stint trying to become their franchise QB. Henne became known as “Checkdown Chad,” and similar rumblings are coming out of Arizona about Kolb and Skelton.

Not so with Tannehill.

He’s not afraid to fit throws in tight windows, has a very quick release and strong arm, can run, can throw ON the run, and is accurate. I had been saying from day one that Tannehill would be their regular-season opening day QB and Garrard’s injury only helps his chances.

With the release of Chad Johnson last week, the Dolphins are without a go-to guy at the WR position. They’re using the preseason to see who steps up and there are two guys to watch here in particular:

First is #81, Chris Hogan. Hogan is an undrafted free agent from football powerhouse Monmouth College and has earned the nickname “7/11″ from teammate Reggie Bush, and the name has caught on. Why? He’s “always open.” Miami QBs would be foolish not to look for him more in this game.

The flip side is #18 Roberto Wallace. He has the size, speed, and physical skills that Hogan lacks, but hasn’t been able to get open much in camp. By contrast, Wallace has earned the nickname “Ankle Weights Wallace” – not exactly flattering for someone in his position and with his god-given ability, but the competition can only help. We’ll see if that starts translating on the field.

See who starts the game covering Steve Smith. Miami CB Vontae Davis (#21), San Francisco’s star TE Vernon Davis’ younger brother, is by far the most physically gifted corner the Dolphins have and is probably most able to cover Smith but look to see if ANOTHER Smith – Sean Smith (#24) – is covering him. If it’s Smith-on-Smith, then Davis still hasn’t worked his way back up the depth chart. He arrived in camp out of shape and for a while he lost his job to Sean, so the Dolphins are challenging his dedication to his craft and making him play his way back in. He has supposedly worked hard on his endurance and tomorrow’s game should help gauge his progress.

Louis Murphy, #83, caught two passes in his first performance as a Panther and looks to be everything the team thought they were getting and more when they picked him up from the Raiders. The Panthers desperately need a #2 receiver to take some pressure off of Steve Smith. If he keeps playing like he did last week, he could well be in the starting lineup opening day.

Aug 11, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA Carolina Panthers wide receiver Louis Murphy (83) stands on the sidelines during the second half against the Houston Texans at Bank of America Stadium. The Texans defeated the Panthers 26-13. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

As with Miami’s corners, watch the Carolina defenders trying to cover. With 2011 draft pick Brandon Hogan nursing still another injury, look for 2012 5th-round pick Josh Norman, #24, and track his progress. Without some pressure from the front seven, no secondary can cover forever so the two are intertwined. Norman has a chance to make an impression and should see the field quite a bit.

Staying with Carolina’s defense, 5th-yr Panther Jordan Senn, #57, played a heck of a game last week, leading the team in tackles with 10. He was all over the field making plays, as was second-leading tackler Kenny Onatolu, #56. Onatolu also had a sack in the contest.

The linebackers are by far the strength of the Panthers’ defense, the team being long on both talent and depth. With Luke Kuechly’s arrival from play one, their starters are set. With the injuries they suffered at the position last year, I would think that the reserves will see most of the action tomorrow night. Jon Beason was held out of last week’s game with a strained leg muscle and Rivera wanted to take no chances.

Other than Norman on the defense, the other rookie to watch is #90 Frank Alexander. Alexander was traded up for in the fourth round and played pretty well against the run last week but he really needs to show some pass rushing ability. None of that surfaced last week, so it’s important to see how he progresses with another week of camp under his belt. Don’t expect anything out of him if he’s going up against perennial pro-bowler LT Jake Long, but I doubt Long will play much for Miami in this game.

Conversely, #93 Antwan Applewhite and #98, Thomas Keiser each had a couple of tackles and a sack. Applewhite has 5.5 career sacks in 5 years, so I wouldn’t read much into one preseason game. At least he got noticed with a strong performance. Keiser was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and could be developing into the pass rusher the Panthers need. Last week’s play may have earned him some more playing time to evaluate his progress and should help light a fire under Alexander as the battle heats up. So far, Alexander appears to be better against the run, so it’s possible Rivera may use Keiser in situational substitutions on some passing downs. It’s an interesting and unpublicized competition going on that die-hard fans will want to follow.

Keep an eye on the entire interior defensive line for Carolina especially early on. They had their woes stopping the run last season and didn’t look any better last week against the Texans, save for their goal-line stand on the first Texans possession. Watch those tackles on any inside running play that the Dolphins throw out there.

One interesting combination to watch, should they ever be on the field together, is Cam Newton and #18 Darvin Adams. Like Newton, Adams is a second-year pro out of Auburn and was Newton’s main target during their BCS national title season. With a year of learning under his belt and his history with Newton, be watchful and see if the two hook up any. Probably not, since Adams is down the depth chart, but if you do see his number on the field while Cam is taking the snaps, it bears keeping in mind.

As for the special teams, Carolina return specialist Joe Adams, #15, showed us last week why he won the Johnny Rogers Award last year as college football’s best return man. He had one return on the night, which undoubtedly had Panthers’ coaching going “NO NO NO NO NO…YES!” on a 34 yard return where he probably ran more like 80 in actual yards in going from one sideline, bowing back to lose some yardage, then turned the corner to pick up those 34 yards.

Aug 11, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA Carolina Panthers wide receiver Joe Adams (15) returns a punt during the second half against the Houston Texans at Bank of America Stadium. The Texans defeated the Panthers 26-13. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

On any punt that he can’t return this week, however, look for him to be NOWHERE NEAR THE BALL. Last week, he decided not to field a punt that landed close to the sideline and awkwardly and narrowly missed touching it as it bounced. I’m sure his special teams coordinator, Brian Murphy, had a few words with him about it after the play and again in the film room this week. We’ll see if Adams is retaining those tidbits this week.

It might not be sexy, but there’s a battle of punters in Carolina. 6th-round pick Brad Nortman out-punted Nick Harris 49.7 to 44.7 – a five-yard average per punt difference, but Harris downed one inside the 20, which skewed the numbers on 3 punts apiece. The fact that a punter was drafted at all means the Carolina brass felt they needed to improve the position or that Nortman has some ability – either leg strength, coffin-corner accuracy, or both – that they coveted. Preseason games are where you look to see how the battle works itself out under pressure situations. Nortman had a 57-yard effort from his own endzone last week that was fair-caught. That’s why you use an actual draft pick on a punter right there instead of sorting through the heap of undrafted free agents after the draft.

Overall, on the Panthers’ side, it’s all about the pass rush and stopping the run.

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Tags: Antwan Applewhite Cam Newton Carolina Panthers Chris Hogan Darvin Adams Frank Alexander Joe Adams Jordan Senn Josh Norman Kenny Onatolu Louis Murphy Miami Dolphins Roberto Wallace Ryan Tannehill Sean Smith Thomas Keiser Vontae Davis

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