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Preseason Power Rankings No. 10: Carolina Panthers

Dave Gettleman, Ron Rivera AP

There were points last season when it appeared time to start writing the obituary for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the team built by former General Manager Marty Hurney.

Then Rivera’s team did a funny thing — they forgot how to lose.

The Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games last year, and only a loss to the 49ers in the playoffs spoiled an unpredictable run built on defense and a singular talent at quarterback.

Of course, they spent the offseason subtracting more than they added, cutting past fat into meat and bone to try to keep a good roster intact.

But that’s what they’re going to have to do for another year or so (when it’s time to pay the next wave of young stars), and they’ve done it well.

Strengths.

In quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have perhaps the best bail-out-a-play guy in the NFL.

It seems no play is over for Newton, who has matured as a passer while remaining dangerous as a runner. His ability in short-yardage helped spark last year’s belief that they could win, and his growth as a passer helped him make plenty of big plays through the air as well.

Newton will need to be incredible, because they took away most of his help (more on that in a moment). But he is incredible, and looks comfortable running an offense which is far from cutting-edge.

It doesn’t need to be complex it if works, and he’s reached what appears to be a good relationship with play-caller Mike Shula.

They also have what might be the best defensive front seven in the NFL.

They have a pair (for a year anyway) of double-digit sack ends, which only required using more than 20 percent of their cap to keep them.

Greg Hardy got the franchise tag after an impressive salary drive (7.0 of his 15.0 sacks came in the final two games), while overpaid-but-productive veteran Charles Johnson has been a steady presence (44.0 sacks the last four season) against the run and pass.

Paired with a interior that included 2013 top picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and a group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers can match personnel with anyone in the league.

It’s a front designed to take the pressure off a suspect back, but it did just that a year ago, succeeding without much pedigreed talent in the secondary.

Weaknesses.

As long as you spend so much on defensive ends, you’ve got to scrimp somewhere. So the fact they’re using temps in the secondary is nearly a non-issue.

What they’re doing without on offense is alarming.

The Panthers lost two of the five or six best players in franchise history when Steve Smith was cut and Jordan Gross retired.

Smith was cut for reasons that exceeded age and production, as all the wideouts who caught a pass last year are gone. If he wasn’t so much of a grouch, they’d have possibly let him ride off into the sunset next year, but they wanted to let Newton take control of the locker room as well as the huddle.

Instead, they signed just-a-guys Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to play stable-pony for first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.

A good running game (everybody’s healthy for a change) and tight end Greg Olsen take some of the pressure off this odd lot of guys to perform. Which is good, because that seems unlikely.

But for all the consternation about the receivers, what happened to their offensive line is worse.

They needed an upgrade from right tackle Byron Bell, but instead they’re letting him compete for the left tackle job along with converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler. They made a run at former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins in free agency, but otherwise did nothing to improve the team’s most glaring weakness in a post-Gross environment. They’ll find out in a hurry how much they miss Gross, which might make management re-think squeezing veterans into dramatic pay cuts in the future.

The middle of the line could be OK, with center Ryan Kalil there to help along a young group. If former second-rounder Amini Silatolu plays to his pre-injury form, they have a chance. Third-rounder Trai Turner is going to have a chance to win the right guard job, and might have the quickest path to the starting lineup of any of their rookies.

Changes.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Panthers was in Rivera himself.

Once a guy with a 2-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, Rivera started rolling the dice and it kept working.

It wasn’t just going for fourth downs (but that’s easier when you have a giant quarterback and a big fat fullback such as Mike Tolbert), there was a different air about the Panthers last season.

They went from playing to unfulfilled potential and bloated salaries to playing like a team with something to prove.

In fact, they did have plenty to prove, as a losing record last season might have triggered a huge house-cleaning by new G.M. Dave Gettleman.

He’s talked for two years about the cap issues created by the previous administration (the cost of owner Jerry Richardson spending none of the money before his lockout, and then spending it all at once afterward). Gettleman’s done a good job of filling in the blanks with day laborers, and appears to have done so again.

Losing players such as Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn shouldn’t sting as much, considering they were a minimum-wage free agent and a seventh-round pick. He found spare parts before, and has again, with cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in line to be this year’s beneficiaries of a pass rush.

Camp Battles.

The Panthers need to find a pair of starting wideouts, and it would be swell if Benjamin would grow into the job in a hurry. Beyond that, they have a bunch of unproven receivers who will be angling for significant roles, from journeyman haircut Tiquan Underwood to kids including Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

There’s also some shuffling among the offensive line jobs and in the secondary, with plenty of roles to fill.

One guy who might need to win a job is former starting safety Charles Godfrey, who tore his Achilles last year and then was forced into a pay cut just to have a chance. Godfrey could end up playing as their nickel, and he has some corner skills from his college days. Whether he can run remains to be seen.

Prospects.

It’s hard to not expect regression, considering the way the Panthers exceeded every reasonable expectation last year.

Their defense and Newton gives them a solid base to build upon, but it will only get harder from here.

They’re built to beat the best teams in the conference, and might have played the Seahawks tougher than anyone in Week One (before anybody realized they were any good).

If they find two dependable tackles and can get something — anything — from their receiving corps, they have a chance to pull off the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.

But it’s hard to consider either of those feats a given, which makes this a team which could still play well, but win far fewer games.

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Greg Roman “pretty darned pleased” with Marcus Lattimore

San Francisco 49ers Rookie Minicamp Getty Images

Marcus Lattimore returned to practice for the San Francisco 49ers on Wednesday for the first time this season.

The second-year running back from South Carolina has yet to play in an NFL game after being drafted by the 49ers in 2013. Lattimore suffered a devastating knee injury in college and has yet to be healthy enough to play in a game. He began the season on the non-football injury list for San Francisco and the team now has 21 days to evaluate Lattimore before making a decision to put him on the active roster or face another wasted season on injured reserve.

However, early impressions from offensive coordinator Greg Roman seem to indicate Lattimore has a chance to get on the field this season.

It was good, very good … great to see him out there,” Roman said via Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com. “He worked with [running backs] Coach [Tom] Rathman after practice extra and got with some of the defensive players and got some contact work, which was really good. And I know they looked at that this morning in a pretty early meeting.

“He’s got his window and there’s a good plan in place to kind of progress him through that window and see where he’s at. Was pretty darned pleased.”

The 49ers only have two running backs on their active roster right now in Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde. Lattimore, if healthy, could bring some additional depth to a position that hasn’t been as successful for San Francisco as they’ve shown in past seasons.

 

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Seahawks hurting at center as Stephen Schilling misses practice Thursday

Max Unger, J.R. Sweezy AP

The Seattle Seahawks could be short-handed at center this week for their game against the Oakland Raiders.

Stephen Schilling has started the last three games at center in relief of an injured Max Unger. However, Schilling did not practice on Thursday due to a knee injury.

Unger has missed the last three games for Seattle after suffering a sprained foot against Washington earlier this month. While Unger has been limited in practice the last two days, his availability for Sunday’s game  also remains in doubt.

With Schilling sitting and Unger limited, Patrick Lewis picked up the additional workload for Seattle on Thursday. However, Lewis has only appeared in one game in his career, which was in brief relief of Schilling in St. Louis two weeks ago.

It remains to be seen whether Schilling’s knee injury is anything of concern or more just a day off to manage soreness. If it is an issue, it could lead to Unger having to suit up even if he’s not at 100 percent or Lewis getting the first extended playing opportunity of his career.

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Saints pick up first road victory of year 28-10 over Panthers

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

After a sloppy first half that featured multiple turnovers by both teams, the New Orleans Saints kicked the offense into gear and cruised to a 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers for their first road win of the season.

Mark Ingram rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns and Drew Brees added two touchdowns of his own – one passing and one rushing – to lead the Saints into the lead into the NFC south. Ingram is the first New Orleans running back to rush for 100 yards in consecutive games since Deuce McAllister in 2006.

The Saints had lost their first four games away from the Superdome this season and won all three games played at home prior to Thursday night. Now the Saints get four of their five games at home and appear primed to take control of the division after a slow start to the season.

Brees was intercepted by Dwan Edwards on the Saints opening possession and fumbled away the ball on their second drive of the game. However, the Panthers Offense could not capitalize on the turnovers. After a Cam Newton fumble, New Orleans responded with touchdowns on four of five possessions to put the game out of reach.

Newton was sacked and fumbled to give the Saints the ball at the Panthers 5-yard line. Ingram punched in the ball from three yards out to give the Saints the lead.

The Saints followed with a lightning quick 10-play, 85-yard drive before halftime that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham to take a 14-0 lead into the locker room.

Newton scrambled for a 10-yard touchdown run cap a 10-play, 81-yard drive for the Panthers first points of the night.

Newton dumped a pass to DeAngelo Williams that Wiliams turned into a 30-yard gain to open the drive. After a potential touchdown pass was dropped by Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone, Newton pirouetted away from pressure and escaped the pocket to his left. Newton dived for the goal line and managed to get the ball to cross over the line for the touchdown.

Newton had a poor night passing. He completed just 10 of 28 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown/

New Orleans answered right back with Brees quickly sneaking the ball over the goal line to extend the Saints lead to 21-7. After a Graham Gano field goal for Carolina, Ingram added his second 3-yard scoring effort of the night to put the game away.

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Rams sign QB Case Keenum to practice squad

Case Keenum AP

The Rams have brought back Case Keenum.

St. Louis signed Keenum, the ex-Texans quarterback, to its practice squad on Thursday, according to the NFL’s transaction log.

The Rams waived Keenum on Tuesday. When he cleared waivers Wednesday, he was eligible to be added to the practice squad.

The 26-year-old Keenum started eight games for Houston in 2013. However, the Texans overhauled their QB depth chart entering this season, and Keenum lost his spot. The Rams claimed him on waivers from the Texans on Sept. 1.

The Rams are one of 19 teams carrying just two quarterbacks on the active roster. However, 14 of those clubs, including St. Louis, have at least one practice squad passer as insurance.

Overall, there are 78 quarterbacks on 53-player rosters, with 16 passers on practice squads, which were expanded to 10 players this season.

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Dick LeBeau gives Cortez Allen a vote of confidence

Andre Johnson, Cortez Allen AP

It was a tough first half of the regular season for Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen.

While Allen did sign a contract extension before the start of the campaign, he’s had a rough go of it on the field. Though he’s still listed as the Steelers’ starter at left cornerback, he didn’t get the start in the Week Eight win vs. Indianapolis. And through eight games, no qualifying cornerback has a lower grade from Pro Football Focus than the 26-year-old Allen.

On Thursday, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was asked about Allen’s confidence.

“Well, having been an old corner myself, a corner learns to live alone, and he’s got to believe in himself, just go out there and play, work on everything he’s doing,” said LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback. “You got to believe in yourself to play corner, and I think Cortez does.

“I have a lot of confidence in him. He just got to produce and get out there and make some plays.”

LeBeau’s remarks on Allen start around the 1:15 mark of this clip. They are worth a listen, if only to hear LeBeau describe the solitary life of a cornerback.

When the 77-year-old LeBeau gives up coaching, here’s to hoping he writes a book. He certainly has an ear for dialogue. But in the meantime, there are players to be helped. And as Allen tries to regain his best form, he’s got a defensive coordinator with 14 NFL seasons as a player to his credit in his corner.

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Cam Newton touchdown run gets Panthers on the board

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

After watching the New Orleans Saints march 85 yards for a touchdown to take a 14-0 lead in the half, the Carolina Panthers needed to get their offense jump started after the break.

Cam Newton answered the call.

Newton scrambled for a 10-yard touchdown run cap a 10-play, 81-yard drive for the Panthers first points of the night.

Newton dumped a pass to DeAngelo Williams that Wiliams turned into a 30-yard gain to open the drive, The Panthers faced two third downs on the drive and Newton used his legs to convert both opportunities. Newton ran for nine yards on 3rd and 1 from the Saints 31-yard line to keep the chains moving.

After a potential touchdown pass was dropped by Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone, Newton pirouetted away from pressure and escaped the pocket to his left. Newton dived for the goal line and managed to get the ball to cross over the line for the touchdown.

Newton has not been great from a passing standpoint – he’s completed just six of 19 passes for 77 yards and an interception – but he managed to get the Panthers in the end zone on what could ultimately be a critical drive to keep Carolina within reach of the Saints.

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Saints take 14-0 lead into halftime

saintspanthers AP

It’s fitting that tonight’s Saints-Panthers game is for first place in the worst division in the NFL, because this game has been mostly a stinker.

But the Saints came alive late in the second quarter and took a 14-0 lead into halftime.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton each have two turnovers, with an interception apiece and a lost fumble apiece. But the difference has been that the Saints have been able to capitalize on the Panthers’ mistakes: Newton’s fumble deep in Saints territory turned into the first New Orleans score, and just before halftime the Saints benefited from a pass interference penalty in the end zone to set up a one-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Jimmy Graham.

Now the Panthers will need to play a lot better in the second half, or else the Saints are going to make a strong statement that they’re the best team in the NFC South. Not that that’s saying much.

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Judge denies Hernandez change of venue request

Hernandez AP

Plagiarism apparently isn’t grounds for moving the location of a murder trial.

According to the Associated Press, Judge Susan Garsh has rejected a request by former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez to move the Odin Lloyd murder case out of Bristol County, Massachusetts.

Specifically, Judge Garsh ruled that Hernandez’s lawyers had not shown that local prejudgment of the case would make it impossible to pick an impartial jury.

Lawyer Michael Fee had argued that “sensational and inflammatory” media coverage “has poisoned the jury pool in Bristol County.”  Of course, the media coverage — sensational or inflammatory or otherwise — has extended far beyond the borders of Bristol County.  It will be a challenge anywhere in the state to find 12 jurors who haven’t formed an opinion about the case based on the media coverage.

The trial currently is set for January 2015.  Hernandez also faces trial on two separate murder charges from July 2012, eleventh months before Lloyd was shot in an area not far from Hernandez’s home.

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Emmitt Smith stresses ball security

emmitt-smith Getty Images

On Thursday, Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith made the media rounds on behalf of Keurig, the company that makes the one-cup-at-time coffee machines.  The former Cowboy had some pointed advice to the player who is jeopardizing a special season, one fumble at a time.

DeMarco Murray has blamed his five lost fumbles on bad luck and on trying to get every last yard while running the ball.  Emmitt, while supportive of his successor, said something Murray needs to heed.

“Ball security is the most important thing and I learned this at a very young age,” Smith said on Thursday’s PFT Live.  “The football is the most important thing on the football field.  No matter if you get a hundred yards, no matter if you lead the league in rushing, if you turn the football over and you’re costing your team games or opportunities to win games, then it becomes a problem.

“I only want to bring it up because his performance has been stellar this entire season thus far, but you cannot help but bring it up when you’re laying the ball down, turning the ball over, and you’re taking away opportunities to either score points, whether it’s through field goals or touchdowns, or you’re taking away opportunities for your team to maintain control of the football, it’s tough to ignore.”

When it comes to fighting for that extra yard, Smith says it’s wiser to understand when to call it a play, and to move on to the next one.

“Knowing when the journey is over is one of the things I had to learn myself as a young running back and I had great coaches to try to emphasize those things when I started to have fumbling issues,” Smith said.

Murray will need even better coaching, because now he’ll be even more of a target.

“In the National Football League, once you starting laying it down on the ground, every team from this point forward is coming to tackle the football, not necessarily tackle you, so therefore you must have some ball security,” Smith said.  “Ball security must be an important thing in a running back’s mind.”

For more from Emmitt, well, you know what to do by now, don’t you?

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Brees has two early turnovers in Carolina

Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

After playing a nearly flawless game on Sunday night, Drew Brees is off to a rough start on Thursday night.

Brees had two turnovers in just over 10 minutes to start the game, although both were flukes as much as they were anything Brees did wrong.

On the first, the Saints had marched deep into Panthers territory only to have Brees throw a pass that was deflected, took a high bounce into the air and ended up in the hands of Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. The second turnover happened when Saints fullback Erik Lorig got pushed backward in pass protection and knocked the ball out of Brees’s hand.

The Saints have moved the ball well, gaining 67 yards before the interception on their first drive and 43 yards before the fumble on their second drive. Now the Saints need to hold onto the ball.

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Jonathan Goodwin, Thomas DeCoud among inactives for Thursday night

Thomas DeCoud AP

Two Saints who were questionable for Thursday night’s game at Carolina are among the team’s inactives.

However, tight end Jimmy Graham is not among them.

Graham (shoulder) is on the Saints’ active roster, as is inside linebacker Kyle Knox (ankle), who was questionable with an ankle ailment.

However, while Graham and Knox will play, the Saints (3-4) will be without center Jonathan Goodwin (knee/ankle) and reserve tailback Khiry Robinson (forearm), who were each questionable for Thursday night.

Tim Lelito is the top backup to Goodwin on the Saints’ depth chart.

The Panthers (3-4-1) also are also down a starter who was questionable, as safety Thomas DeCoud (hamstring) is inactive. According to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer, Tre Boston will get the call in his place.

The Panthers’ other inactives had previously been ruled out with injuries: left tackle Byron Bell (knee), cornerback Bene Benwikere (ankle), wideout Philly Brown (concussion), left guard Amini Silatolu (calf), right guard Trai Turner (knee) and tailback Fozzy Whittaker (thigh).

The Saints’ other inactives are inside linebacker David Hawthorne (hand), cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, fullback Austin Johnson (knee), tailback Pierre Thomas (rib/shoulder) and wide receiver Nick Toon. Hawthorne, Johnson and Thomas had already been declared out for tonight’s game in Charlotte.

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Greg Hardy’s trial is continued until after season

Hardy Getty Images

As the Panthers continue to play without defensive end Greg Hardy, they may be playing without him even longer than they had thought.

Per a league source, Hardy’s jury trial on domestic violence charges has been postponed.  It had been set for November 17.

A judge previously found Hardy guilty via a preliminary trial so informal that the court doesn’t even create a transcript of the proceedings.  Hardy has agreed to, as a practical matter, a suspension with pay pending the resolution of his case.  He’s continuing to receive weekly installments of his $13.1 million franchise-tag salary.

According to the source, Hardy resisted the postponement.  He wants to get the case behind him, so that he can return to football.  Due to be a free agent after the season, Hardy will have a hard time making the case for a big contract on the open market if he hasn’t played since September.

The delay necessarily puts pressure on Hardy to strike a plea deal.  But without a clear idea of the punishment the NFL would impose under the personal conduct policy, a plea bargain carries with it a high degree of uncertainty in the Court of Goodell.

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Jake Locker says he won’t pout about being benched

Jake Locker AP

Titans quarterback Jake Locker isn’t happy about getting benched. But he’s going to try to keep his chin up.

It’s frustrating. It’s not the way you draw it up obviously,” Locker said, via 24/7 Sports. “But I don’t think you can dwell on it either. It doesn’t do anybody any good to pout about it, so I’m just gonna go forward as is now and do my part to be a productive member of this football team.”

Locker said he’ll do his best to help the man who has taken his job, rookie Zach Mettenberger.

“You want to be on the field and you want to play, but I understand that’s my role as a part of this team now. Zach was that teammate to me and I plan to do the same thing for him, help him to be as prepared as possible, as ready as possible every Sunday when he steps on the field,” Locker said.

That’s all Locker can do now. That, and wait until March, when he’ll be a free agent and can put his disappointing tenure in Tennessee behind him.

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Ronnie Hillman limited again on Thursday with shoulder injury

Hillman Getty Images

Ronnie Hillman has 283 yards rushing in Denver’s last three games.  Whether he gets a chance to build on that remains in doubt, to some degree.

Via Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, Hillman was limited again in practice with a shoulder injury that he suffered on Wednesday.  Hillman has said that he’ll play on Sunday in New England.

If Hillman can’t carry the load on Sunday, that likely will mean more opportunities for rookie Juwan ThompsonMontee Ball remains out of practice with a groin injury.

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Eli Manning: You can’t just throw it deep and think it’s a solution

Eli Manning AP

Giants General Manager Jerry Reese said this week that the team needs to be more aggressive on offense than they’ve been while compiling a 3-4 record.

Reese’s comments come at a time when Eli Manning is completing 64.9 percent of his passes and on a pace to throw 11 interceptions, which is exactly the kind of play that the Giants spent all offseason saying they wanted to see from the offense installed by offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. It’s come with a drop in his yards per attempt and the team hasn’t made many big plays at all, but, again, that’s the offense they seemed to want during the offseason.

Reese said that Manning is playing “pretty well,” but also suggested that the quarterback is too cautious because you have to throw the ball down the field to win. Manning has a different take on the situation.

“You can’t just start throwing it deep and [think] that’s the solution,” Manning said, via Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.

Setting aside the issue of the tenets of the offensive scheme that McAdoo installed, Manning spent a lot of time trying to throw it deep behind an offensive line that couldn’t block last season and paid the price for it. The line’s had some better moments this season, but they’ve been less effective the last two weeks and the loss of Victor Cruz has taken away one of the players Manning liked to look for down the field. Rookie Odell Beckham appears able to pick up some of the slack in that department, but the line will need to be more consistent and the offense will have to be crisper across the board if those plays are going to open up for the Giants in the second half.

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