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No Cam Newton, but plenty of Christian McCaffrey in Panthers' preseason opener

The versatility Christian McCaffrey offers should be on display in the Panthers' preseason opener on Wednesday. AP Photo/Chuck Burton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Quarterback Cam Newton won’t play. Defensive end Julius Peppers won’t play for more than a few snaps. Same for running back Jonathan Stewart and a few other veterans.

But there still is plenty to keep an eye on as the Carolina Panthers face the Houston Texans tonight in their preseason opener at Bank of America Stadium.

The game, by the way, was moved to Wednesday night because the PGA Championship starts on Thursday at Quail Hollow Club.

Here are six things to watch:

Christian McCaffrey. We’ve seen the eighth pick of the draft line up in practice at tailback in the I-formation, at tailback next to the quarterback in the shotgun, as a slot receiver, as a wide receiver and even in the Wildcat. But how much will the Panthers show off their new toy against the Texans? My guess is we’ll see small doses, saving the full package for the regular season. And likely no Wildcat. But at Stanford, McCaffrey took 66 direct snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Cardinal scored a touchdown four times and averaged 6.1 yards per play when that happened, so he is a viable weapon in that formation. You also likely will see McCaffrey return punts and possibly kickoffs. There is nothing this 21-year-old can’t do, and he alone might be worth the price of admission.

Cam Newton. As mentioned, he won’t play. The team trainer and doctors haven’t allowed him to throw with the team since July 30 after the 2015 NFL MVP experienced some fatigue and soreness in his surgically repaired shoulder. But Newton is progressing; he threw with trainer Ryan Vermillion for a few days and then with second-round pick Curtis Samuel (out with a hamstring injury) on Tuesday. Newton appears close to returning to practice and is expected to make his preseason debut either next weekend against the Titans or the following week at Jacksonville. But look for Newton to be involved on Wednesday, either sending in plays or by simply being active in the play-calling decisions. You might see him run up and down the sideline when he gets excited about a big play. He may even lead a wave as he did Friday night at FanFest.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton isn't allowed to throw right now but he leads a pretty good wave at FanFest.

David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer ago

Left tackle. The Panthers signed free agent Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million deal to replace Michael Oher, who was released prior to camp. Kalil is coming off hip surgery and he’s in a new system, but he says it feels good to be playing pain-free for the first time in a while. How well he and the rest of the line mesh will go a long way toward determining how this season goes for the Panthers offensively. Last year’s line was a disaster after Oher went out. That Kalil will face two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney will be a good first test to see how far he’s progressed. Also keep an eye on Amini Silatolu, a guard who is being groomed as the backup left tackle. Coach Ron Rivera likes what he’s seen so far, but preseason games will provide the true test.

Offensive evolution. While we’re on offense, keep an eye on the evolution of this one into a more multifaceted unit that depends on playmakers such as McCaffrey, free-agent acquisition Russell Shepard, Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and Greg Olsen. You might not see all these players on the field at the same time for long, but keep an eye on how quarterback Derek Anderson moves the ball around and the way McCaffrey and Shepard as short, underneath options open everything else up. Also keep an eye on some of the young receivers the Panthers are developing. There’s a tight battle for the fifth and possibly sixth receiver spots between Brenton Bersin, Damiere Byrd, Kaelin Clay, Mose Frazier, Austin Duke and Trevor Graham.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera likes the evolution of the offense and what he's seen so far even though Cam Newton missed the last week of practice and will be held out of Wednesday's preseason opener against Houston.

David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer ago

Secondary. Second-year cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are, according to veteran free safety Kurt Coleman, "light years" ahead of where they were a year ago. The safety position is more stable as well with 36-year-old Mike Adams at strong safety and Coleman back at free. But the depth situation, particularly at safety, is something to keep an eye on. Carolina waived/injured Dean Marlowe on Tuesday with an undisclosed injury. That leaves little experience in players such as L.J. McCray, Dezmen Southward and Damian Parms behind them. The only other safety with experience currently on the roster is Colin Jones. Also keep an eye on the backup nickel position. Captain Munnerlyn is the starting nickel and rookie Corn Elder was drafted to back him up, but the former Miami star has been out with a knee injury. That has given undrafted free agent Cole Luke an opportunity. He’s looked good in practice, but he needs to carry that over into preseason games.

Ben Boulware vs. Deshaun Watson. The Panthers’ undrafted rookie linebacker was being real earlier this week when he said he probably wouldn’t be on the field at the same time as the Texans’ rookie quarterback, his former Clemson teammate. But if Boulware and Watson do get on the field together, look out. Boulware has been waiting three and a half years to hit Watson, who was off limits when the Tigers practiced.

"If you breathed on him in practice Coach [Dabo] Swinney would pull your scholarship," Boulware said with a laugh.