Three Carolina Panthers to watch: San Francisco 49ers
By Jake Wexler
This is a big week for the Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have won four straight games and are well rested off of a bye week. They face their biggest test of the season on the road against the undefeated 49ers.
In 2013, the Carolina Panthers rode a four game winning streak into Candlestick Park to take on a 49ers team fresh off of a Super Bowl berth the season before. The Panthers had yet to prove themselves fully under coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton. In an absolute slugfest of a game, wrought with clichés surrounding field position and defense, the Panthers got what was then one of the biggest wins in franchise history. One that signaled a turning of the tide in the Queen City.
Fast forward to 2019, where the Carolina Panthers ride a four game winning streak into Levi’s Stadium to take on an undefeated San Francisco team. A game, if the Panthers were to win, could be defiant in a potentially special season.
Here’s who I’ll be watching closely on Sunday.
DL Vernon Butler
I will be the first to admit, I was on the “cut or trade Vernon Butler” train all offseason. The former first round pick had not only not produced in his first three seasons, but also wasn’t even given the opportunity to dress for games on multiple occasions.
Something has finally clicked.
After losing all-pro defensive tackle for the season, the Panthers knew that Butler would be more involved in the rotation up front. The Panthers did not know that he would deliver with the level of ferocity that he has since increasing his snap load.
Butler has three forced fumbles and three sacks this season. To put that in perspective, the 2016 first round pick had zero forced fumbles and two sacks in his first three seasons combined.
Butler is in a contract year and has created unforeseen circumstances for the Panthers with his contract situation looking ahead. If he continues to play the way he has, he could be in line for a decent pay day in the 2020 offseason. I’ll be watching to see if he can keep bringing the heat on Jimmy G this week.
OL Trai Turner
Returning this week for the Panthers is their all-pro right guard Trai Turner, who has struggled with the longing effects of a high ankle sprain for most of the first half of the season. The Panthers shockingly couldn’t have asked the offensive line to perform more admirably in his absence, especially with a young and inexperienced quarterback manning the huddle.
The problem the Panthers now face will be deciding who will need to either change positions up front or take a seat. Considering the recent success of rookie tackle Dennis Daley, I believe they will leave him as is. The odd men out are Daryl Williams and Greg Van Roten, both of whom have played well enough on the interior to earn a spot. It will be a tough decision, but a welcome problem for the Panthers to have. I suspect that Daryl Williams moves to the bench, but still gets opportunities to rotate in throughout the game. It’ll be a hell of a matchup in the trenches for this one, so I’ll be watching Trai Turner (and his ankle) very closely.
KR/PR Greg Dortch
In my week one preview, I highlighted punt returner Ray Ray McCloud in this segment as a Panther to watch. Three fumbles later, I’m pivoting along with Carolina to former Wake Forest Deamon Deacon Greg Dortch.
Dortch has been brought in and tasked with one job: hold on to the damn ball. Anything after that is luxurious.
Dortch showed a lot of enthusiasm on Twitter after learning that the Panthers had signed him off of the Jets practice squad, and it seems some of his New York team mates may have been a little bit jealous.
Dortch could prove to be a huge factor in a game that has “field position war” written all over it. I’ll be watching (and hoping) for him to protect the football and provide a spark this Sunday.