JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Here’s what should excite you about Cam Newton’s preseason debut:
The Carolina Panthers quarterback didn’t do — or have to do — anything spectacular and still led a scoring drive on the first series of Thursday night’s game at Jacksonville.
Newton handed off eight times and threw twice, completing both passes, the second a 9-yard touchdown to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin that simply was too easy. So he was efficient.
He never was in danger of being hit by a big pass rush. He never thought about putting his surgically repaired shoulder or body in danger with a designed run out of the read-option or one of his electrifying scrambles. Both were big for the quarterback who has been hit more than any other since 2011.
He got the ball in the hands of first-round pick Christian McCaffrey with a short pass that the former Stanford running back turned into a 12-yard gain. He let his playmakers make plays.
So in terms of what the Panthers wanted to accomplish with Newton: Check, check and check.
Here are other observations from the 24-23 victory over the Jaguars:
QB depth chart: Anyone who came to see if Newton was ready for the Sept. 10 opener, despite limited throwing in the preseason, got the answer: Yes. While he may not be ready to throw 40-50 passes a game, that’s not what the staff wants. The coaches want a physical, ball-control offense like the one they saw on the opening drive. They want Newton to take advantage of the easy throws, which he did. Third-string quarterback Joe Webb didn’t dress, but he’ll likely get a lot of playing time in the final preseason game, when Newton isn’t expected to play. Derek Anderson played into the third quarter, and the offense sputtered for the second straight week.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Panthers looked …: Solid. Efficient. Ready for the regular season. OK, so it was against Jacksonville, but the Panthers dominated up front with their first-team offense, helping make Newton’s return a cakewalk. The physical ground game that is the basis of the team’s attack set up two easy throws by Newton. The defensive front looked solid as well. End Mario Addison ended Jacksonville’s first series with a sack. The Jaguars were headed for another three-and-out but used a fake punt for a 51-yard gain to set up a touchdown.
One reason to be concerned: Second-year cornerback Daryl Worley had a solid training camp at Wofford College. But for the second straight week, he was beaten badly. Last week, it was for a touchdown on a miscommunication. On Thursday, he was let off the hook on a drop of a deep pass in which the receiver got behind him, but he later gave up a 37-yard reception on third-and-14 in the second quarter. Big plays against the secondary killed Carolina a year ago.
That guy could start: Center Tyler Larsen was the third-string, arguably fourth, center last year, but got valuable playing time because of mass injuries. Now he’s the backup center and has played well with the first unit as five-time Pro Bowl selection Ryan Kalil has rehabbed from shoulder surgery. Larsen took over for Kalil after the first series and held his own against the Jaguars’ starters.
Rookie watch: We pause from the hype of McCaffrey to focus on second-round pick Curtis Samuel. The former Ohio State wide receiver made his preseason debut after dealing with a hamstring injury most of training camp. He was drafted to open up this offense from the slot position. He was targeted five times and had three catches for 9 yards. The swing route he turned into a 7-yard completion was a good example of what he can do. He did leave the field with a slight limp, so that’s something to keep an eye on.
Don’t forget Stew: With the dynamic playmaking ability of McCaffrey, it’s easy to forget Jonathan Stewart is the starting running back. The 30-year-old showed on the first drive that he’s still a force and not a player to be forgotten in fantasy football. Stewart carried four times on the first drive for 40 yards, including a 31-yarder in which he looked as nimble as the 21-year-old McCaffrey.
Where’s Funch? The Panthers keep saying they want to get wide receiver Devin Funchess more involved in the passing game. He wasn’t targeted in this one and has only two catches for 12 yards (with a fumble) in three games. Yes, it’s preseason, but Funchess disappeared from the offense last year after having a great preseason. The Panthers will need him to step up when teams start making game plans designed to stop Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen.