In what will be the best dress rehearsal for the regular season we are ever going to see, here is what I will be paying extra close attention to in tonight's Panthers - Patriots match up. 
 
Run Game Dominance 
With Jonathan Stewart in the lineup and a much improved offensive line, the Panthers need to impose their will on the Patriots first string defense.  Last week this group looked pedestrian at best. The Panthers have enough talent on offense this season to grind out at least a few yards on every attempt, even if it is ugly and right up the gut of the Patriots defense. Line up our biggest guys against their biggest guys and lets see who gets moved. 
Cam Newton Read and React
Cam Newton has never looked good in preseason, so I am not overly concerned here. But many of Cam's throws have been just a tad late or behind the receiver. Take last week's intercepted pass to Greg Olsen for example. The ball was out late and behind Olsen, even though Cam had more than adequate protection. The result was a pick 6. I would like to see an interception free game from Newton this evening with quicker more decisive reads. 
More Shaq!
Really excited about what we saw from Shaq Thompson last week. Thompson provides a physical skill set that will prove to be a huge headache for opposing offensive coordinators this year. Thompson has the speed and strength to cover nearly anyone on the field and the natural instincts to snuff out the run at the line of scrimmage. More Shaq, please. 
Catch the Ball, Corey
Corey Brown has a dismal showing last week with his multiple drops including one in the end zone. While I am excited that Jarrett Boykin is really coming on strong, the Panthers need Brown as an additional deep threat. If Corey can put together a solid game tonight, catch everything thrown his way, and possibly tack on a touchdown... last week will be all but forgotten. 
Get Aggressive, Stay Aggressive
The Panthers and Patriots do not like each other, and that is putting it mildly. Even though it is preseason, the Panthers do not want to be embarrassed by the Patriots on a national stage. I know some fans will play the "just no injuries" card, which is always a boring platitude. Of course no injuries. It is a given. But you know how you avoid injuries best? By staying aggressive and on the offensive. Players most frequently get injured when they are not in control of the action. Take Cam's rib injury from last year's Patriots game for example. Offensive line break down, Cam running for his life amidst a butt whooping. Result? Injury. Be in control. Stay aggressive. That is the best way to stay healthy. 
 
 
Last year around this time, the New England Patriots embarrassed the Carolina Panthers. 
On August 22, 2014, the Patriots took Carolina behind the woodshed in the third preseason game of the preseason and administered a 30-7 beating. But it was really never that close. The Patriots held the Panthers scoreless for 58 minutes and sent the Panthers home with an injured Cam Newton. 
This game ended up being an omen for the 2014 regular season. Many, myself included, brushed aside the 30-7 domination as preseason silliness. Turns out, Carolina was on the losing end of those types of blowouts early and often in the 2014 season. Meaningless? Not so much. 
The Panthers do not want to be embarrassed again this week. This week, it is personal. 
For the first two days of practice this week, scout teams have been used. Yes, they are game planning for Friday night. The Panthers are installing plays they feel will be successful against the Patriots. The players have spent time in the film room. Cam Newton and the starters will be playing into the third quarter. This is as close to the regular season it will ever get in August. 
This week we have our first real look at the 2015 Carolina Panthers. Whether the performance is outstanding or dismal, it will be difficult to brush aside the results as "only preseason." 
I learned that lesson last year. 
The Huddle Podcast is back!
 
This week we talk preseason with The Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones about the Panthers preseason and more. 
Topics include - 
- Panthers rookies
- Preseason performance
- Mike Tolbert
- More
 
We are joined by the guys from Brewpublik , a new service in Charlotte that delivers delicious beer to your home, work, or tailgate. Check it out. 
Subscribe via iTunes -> Click Here
 

 
 
As part of their Undrafted series, NFL Network is spotlighting Panthers RB Brandon Wegher. 
It seems Wegher is getting more than just local attention for his late game heroics. Parallels have been drawn between him and another undrafted running back, Arian Foster of the Texans. 
 
 
 
There is a path for Wegher to make the Panthers 53 man roster. I have it detailed here on a possible projected roster. 
 
 
There has been a lot of talk about the Panthers roster at certain positions and the likelihood of some of the bubble players making the team. 
But what if the Panthers decided to go all out and install another youth movement on the Panthers roster. Here is what it could look like.... 
 
Offense - 26

Quarterback - 3
Cam Newton
Derek Anderson
Joe Webb
Note: Panthers can keep all three QBs still as they have said they would.  
Running Back - 4
Jonathan Stewart
Cameron Artis-Payne
Jordan Todman
Brandon Wegher
Note: Possibly the strongest lineup ever seen from top to bottom in this group. A lot of people see Wegher as in a roster competition with the other backs. He is not. His actual competition comes from one of the linebackers.... Jason Trusnik. Wegher wins the position by filling the special teams designated roster spot that Rivera has alluded to multiple times. Wegher has looked fantastic in special teams this preseason. 
Fullback - 1
Lee Ward
Note: Not a popular move with most fans, but Ward could possibly move the pile on the 3rd or 4th and short. 
Tight End - 3
Greg Olsen
Ed Dickson
Marcus Lucas
Note: Could be Simonson here instead of Lucas. Simonson looked pretty good against the Dolphins. 
Wide Receiver - 6
Devin Funchess
Corey Brown
Ted Ginn
Brenton Bersin
Jarrett Boykin
Damiere Byrd

Note: The youth movement is strong here. Good mix of size and speed with fresh legs all season long. Cotchery is the odd man out. 

Offensive Line - 9
Michael Oher
Andrew Norwell
Ryan Kalil
Trai Turner
Mike Remmers
Daryl Williams
Chris Scott
Amini Silatolu 
Nate Chandler
Note: Nothing changed here. 
Defense: 24
Defensive Line - 9
Charles Johnson
Star Lotulelei 
Kawaan Short
Kony Ealy
Dwan Edwards
Mario Addison
Kyle Love
Terry Redden
Rakim Cox
Note: Cox replaces Alexander. The rookie Redden over Colin Cole. Cole is one of the oldest players on the roster currently. 

Linebacker - 5
Thomas Davis
Luke Kuechly
Shaq Thompson
AJ Klein
David Mayo
Note: Jason Trusnik removed here. AJ Klein allows the Panthers to keep only 5 linebackers with his ability to play every position as a backup. 
Safety - 4
Roman Harper
Tre Boston
Kurt Coleman
Colin Jones

Corners - 6
Josh Norman
Bene Benwikere
Charles Tillman
Teddy Williams
Melvin White
Carrington Byndom
Note: Byndom quietly impressive Saturday night. 

Special Teams - 3
Kicker - Graham Gano
Punter - Brad Nortman
Long Snapper - JJ Jansen 

Practice Squad - 7
David Foucault
Adarius Glanton
Dean Marlowe
Martin Wallace
TJ Heath
 
So what do you think, would this be a Panthers roster that a) you could get behind and support fully and b ) has a chance to win? 
After the Carolina Panthers preseason game on Sunday night, I took to the locker room to speak to two players I felt made a tremendous difference in the second half. 
Brandon Wegher and Lee Ward. Both hard nosed throwback runners. Both undrafted free agents. Both fighting tooth and nail for a Panthers jersey this season. These commonalities have allowed Wegher and Ward to develop a common purpose on the field and a friendship off of it. 
Wegher on Ward
"He is a bulldozer man!" Wegher said with excitement. "Anytime he is in front of me I know I can follow him and we are going to pickup yards."
Ward was seen on the field Friday night effectively blocking linebackers and even defensive ends. It was Ward's blocking that sprung Wegher free on more than one occasion. 
"Lee is a great player, great teammate, great friend" he added. 

Ward on Wegher 
"He is a great guy on and off the field. Probably my closest friend right now on the team. We have a strong chemistry on the field. He has had two great games in a row. I've enjoyed blocking for him and opening up holes for him." 
And on Wegher's future? 
"I think the sky is the limit with him. I think he is a starting running back in the NFL. You hear a lot of guys talk about how good he is as a running back, but they fail to mention he is a baller on special teams too. He is fast, he sheds blocks, he does it all." 

Ward understands it is a numbers game right now, and neither player is guaranteed a roster spot. It remains very unclear if both, or neither, will have a locker in Bank of America Stadium this season. 
"I'm excited to see what the future hold for both of us." 
 
 
This year on the Huddle I am introducing a new feature on the Huddle I think you will love. 
I will be displaying some of my favorite photos from each game along with commentary in "Along the Sidelines" in hi-definition. This method is optimized for HD viewing and retina screens. 
I hope you enjoy the first installment. 
 
Along the Sidelines - Dolphins at Panthers
 
Panthers.com writer (and friend of the Huddle) Max Henson gives some solid insight here....
 
http://www.panthers.com/news/article-2/2015-Training-Camp-Awards/802035ec-580f-48bc-928b-e3ede924c71e
 
Definitely worth your clicks to read his analysis. 
 
Here is my take on his picks.... 
 
Offensive MVP: KB
No question. KB looked primed for an All-Pro year. 
Defensive MVP: Luke
Can't argue this. 
Standout Newcomer: Oher
Oher started shaky but finished strong as he acclimated to the left. Hard to argue this. But I might give the nod to Peanut Tillman also who forced many a fumble and looked solid all camp. 
Most Improved: Corey Brown
Corey did improve over last camp, that is for sure. I am tempted to give this to Josh Norman though who is really coming into his own. 
Pleasent Surprise: Kurt Coleman
Can't argue here. Coleman is this year's Mike Mitchell, but perhaps even better. 
Hustle Award: Norwell and Todman 
Yep and Yep. Norwell is always running to the ball downfield. Go watch the last preseason game again. The guy has a motor. 
I have been preaching Todman for weeks now. The guy is going to really turn heads this year. 
 
I would also add....
Best Rookie: 
Daryl Williams - As of today, Williams has stood out as the most consistent rookie on the field in addition to playing at a very high level. Only a matter of time folks.... 
 
 
Kelvin Benjamin's injury has forced the roster projection to change, but not in a way you might expect. 
 
Offense - 25
Quarterback - 3
Cam Newton
Derek Anderson
Joe Webb
Note: Remember, Webb can also play that large possession receiver spot if needed. 
Running Back - 3
Jonathan Stewart
Cameron Artis-Payne
Jordan Todman
Note: These three backs plus Mike Tolbert is enough running power to win any game on the schedule, period. 
Fullback - 1
Mike Tolbert
Tight End - 4
Greg Olsen
Ed Dickson
Marcus Lucas
Richie Brockel
Note: With the Panthers utilizing the two tight end set more frequently, they are going to need more than two pass catching tight ends. Marcus Lucas impressed both in camp and preseason game 1, more so than Simonson. 
Wide Receiver - 5
Devin Funchess
Corey Brown
Ted Ginn
Brenton Bersin
Jerricho Cotchery
Note: Well, I have taken Kelvin Benjamin off the list and have not replaced him. I feel the Panthers will now keep 5 wide outs, a pretty typical number across the league. Instead they will opt for a third pass catching tight end who can also contribute on special teams. Why add another receiver that is exactly like two guys already on the roster and not activate him on game days? 
Offensive Line - 9
Michael Oher
Andrew Norwell
Ryan Kalil
Trai Turner
Mike Remmers
Daryl Williams
Chris Scott
Amini Silatolu 
Nate Chandler
Note: Panthers could opt to waive Brian Folkerts and use Mike Remmers as the backup center. This frees up roster space and makes room for the day that Daryl Williams is starting (it will happen this season). Williams has been the most impressive rookie overall in camp. 
Defense: 25
Defensive Line - 9
Charles Johnson
Star Lotulelei 
Kawaan Short
Frank Alexander
Kony Ealy
Colin Cole
Dwan Edwards
Mario Addison
Kyle Love
Note: Panthers still hang on to Kyle Love due to injury concerns with Star. Love was the player that was brought up when Lotulelei was first injured in January. 
Linebacker - 6
Thomas Davis
Luke Kuechly
Shaq Thompson
AJ Klein
David Mayo
Jason Trusnik 
Note: I have added Trusnik here due to how poor punt coverage teams looked in preseason game 1. Clearly the Panthers need all the special teams help they can get. 
Safety - 4
Roman Harper
Tre Boston
Kurt Coleman
Colin Jones
Corners - 6
Josh Norman
Bene Benwikere
Charles Tillman
Teddy Williams
Melvin White
TJ Heath
Note: Like Trusnik, I have added special teams ace Williams here. Carrington Byndom back on practice squad. 
Special Teams - 3
Kicker - Graham Gano
Punter - Brad Nortman
Long Snapper - JJ Jansen 
Practice Squad - 10
Carrington Byndom
Lee Ward
Damiere Byrd
Brandon Wegher 
David Foucault
Adarius Glanton
Dean Marlowe
Martin Wallace
(unkown player)
(unkown player)
With Kelvin Benjamin out for the year and Devin Funchess out for the day with a sprained hamstring, the Panthers showcased for the first time what they can do without their tall pass catching duo. 
The result? A mixed bag. 
The entire Panthers offense started off very sluggish, similar to the preseason game.
Fozzy Whitaker tried to find running room, but was snuffed out quickly. 

In fact, the first completed pass of the day in the team drills came from the third string, a screen pass from Joe Webb to Brandon Wegher. When your first two units fail to complete a pass in team drills.... it isn't a good sign. 
Once the Panthers settled in, they featured more two tight end sets in their offense. The tight ends performed very well. 
Greg Olsen caught a really nice touchdown in tight coverage, one handing it in. 


Ed Dickson caught a few passes over the middle in team drills. 

and even newly converted tight end Marcus Lucas got in the action with a nice touchdown grab from Derek Anderson. 

Lucas has put on about 15 pounds of muscle from last season. I am really tempted to now put him on my roster projection. A big body that can play both WR and TE spots could be a real asset when trying to compensate for Kelvin Benjamin's loss. 
The Panthers seem to realize the deficit of talent they have at the wide receiver position currently. Featuring the talented tight ends more will be the main stay of the offense now. 
Rookie Daryl Williams spent some time as the starting right tackle and performed well. It is only a matter of time until the Panthers figure out a way to get this kid out there full time. He may be the best draft pick of 2015. 

As far as the wide receivers go, it was a rough outing mostly. 
Ted Ginn provided the best play of the day. 
On first and 10 in the 2 minute drill, the Panthers surprised the Dolphins with a long bomb from Cam Newton to Ginn. As you can see, Ginn was no where near being covered, a blown assignment by the Dolphins. 


As far as the other receivers, in general it was a lackluster day. Most of the plays ended in failure to gain separation and as a result a defensive play on the ball. 

Jerricho Cotchery's play was the most costly for the Panthers and ended in an interception. I am not sure why passes are being thrown to him far downfield. It seems shorter routes where more route precision and hands are required would be a better fit for him. 

Mike Tolbert and Jordan Todman looked solid today and both made nice plays running the ball. 


Todman is a really slippery guy. I am excited to see him in action this season. He has a knack for hiding behind his linemen until just the right moment, then punching the ball out in a hurry. Todman may be the most significant offensive pickup the Panthers had in free agency this season. 

So, in summary....
- The Panthers are increasing their looks in the two tight end sets. All three tight ends for the Panthers looked good. 
- None of the receivers (not named Ginn) did anything to really help their cause today and prove they can be a number one or two receiver. Some plays were made occasionally here and there, but the consistency is just not there. Receivers are failing to gain seperation from their defenders. The result was multiple dropped balls and interceptions. 
- The running game looked promising with Tolbert and Todman especially. 
I do not feel the Panthers will be signing a receiver anytime soon from free agency. However, I do not feel a future signing or trade is out of the question as teams are forced to release players. Gettleman does have a history of signing free agents up until the start of the season. Could it happen at the receiver position this year? Maybe.