Three Panthers players to watch: Los Angeles Rams

FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 22: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers warms up prior to the start of the preseason game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on August 22, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 22: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers warms up prior to the start of the preseason game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on August 22, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images) /

It’s almost game day for the Carolina Panthers.

The wait is over. The NFL season has finally arrived. This year, I will be taking a weekly look at three Panthers players to watch for in their upcoming game. I’ll try to avoid the cookie cutter options and instead take a deep dive into potentially intriguing match-ups or depth players who may need to step up. That being said, we will kick off the season with a familiar name because for all intents and purposes, he is absolutely a player to be watching closely on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.

Cam Newton

It’s been a long off-season made much longer by the constant back and forth regarding the health of the Panthers starting quarterback and former MVP. After surgery, a changed throwing motion, endless training camp tweets breaking down his every move, and another preseason injury scare, we finally get to see if Cam Newton is able to play competitive football again on Sunday.

I have to say, I’ve been a skeptic when it comes to Newton’s return to health. The Panthers have confused in the past with their diagnoses and recovery periods, which is scary to say the least.  I need the physical proof that Cam Newton is back, and here are some keys I’ll be looking for against the Rams.

Deep Ball

I’ve been saying this since the end of last season, but talk is cheap when it comes to the Panthers coaching staff. They can tell us how Newton’s deep ball is back till the cows come home, but until they prove their confidence in him with their play-calling I won’t buy it. Neither will any NFL defense.

That’s why I’m looking for a deep shot early. I’m talking first two series early. If Ron Rivera and Norv Turner show an early confidence in Cam’s arm strength through play-calling, the entire outlook on the 2019 season will change dramatically. If not, it may be a long season.

Taking and Delivering Hits

Cam Newton took more hits than we’d like to see in limited snaps during the third preseason game. One of those hits took him out of the game, and had Panthers fans (myself included) thinking that the sky was falling. By the grace of the football gods, Newton will be “100 percent” for the opener.

As much as I’d like to see Cam kept clean all day, Aaron Donald exists. Donald will almost assuredly wreak havoc up front resulting in few or more hits on the quarterback. If Newton is able to bounce back up from the licks he takes, it will be another great sign for fans.

General Accuracy

The unwarranted accuracy jokes surrounding Cam Newton throughout his career were almost squashed in 2018. Newton was on pace for career highs in passer rating and completion percentage before injuring his shoulder.

That same shoulder injury has caused Newton to make a major adjustment to his throwing motion to reduce the stress on his upper body. I’ll be watching early on short to intermediate throws to see if Newton is placing his passes in ideal spots or if he is struggling to find his targets.

Brian Burns

The 2019 first round pick had an incredible preseason, racking up four sacks and a forced fumble in less than three full games of action. Burns, at 6’5 250 lbs, has the tools to be an absolute superstar in this league.

Newly acquired veteran Bruce Irvin, the projected starter in front of Burns on the edge, has been held out of practice this week with a hamstring injury. Burns may be thrust into a starting role earlier than projected. When asked by Max Henson of how ready Burns would be to step in and start this Sunday, the rookie replied, “How ready? Very.”.

Jared Goff may not know who Brian Burns is today, but after Sunday the Panthers hope he, and the rest of the league, are put on notice. Burns notice. Yep.

Ray-Ray McCloud

The Panthers last relevant return man was Ted Ginn Jr., who is now a New Orleans Saint. Reliable, but nothing spectacular. Since the departure of Ginn, Carolina has struggle to find consistency, or any sort of explosiveness, in the return game.

Through training camp, many believed seventh round pick Terry Godwin had earned the job. The Panthers instead waived Godwin and claimed former Buffalo Bills receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, shortly thereafter declaring that he will be the lead return man.

McCloud stood out to general manager Marty Hurney back in 2017, when he was returning punts  for Clemson.

Hurney was sold on Ray-Ray’s explosiveness in the return game after witnessing the above against North Carolina State.  McCloud was reportedly on the Panthers radar in the late rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft before being drafted by Buffalo in the sixth.

In his ten games as a rookie, McCloud returned just four punts for 20 yards, a 5.0 yard average. During his final college season, he returned 25 punts for 303 yards, a 12.12 yard average.

I’ll be watching closely to see if Carolina has finally uncovered a diamond in the rough to help rejuvenate their return game.