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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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Collins says he’ll rest for now, surgery decision will come later

La'el Collins AP

Cowboys guard La’El Collins told reporters Tuesday that he plans to rest his injured toe for two weeks before a decision is made on whether he needs surgery.

Collins has torn ligaments in his right big toe. He was placed on injured reserve Monday, but he’ll eligible to return in eight weeks if he’s healed and up to speed. Collins is wearing a protective boot and undergoing treatment in hopes the injury will heal without surgery.

There had been conflicting reports on whether or not surgery would be necessary, and also whether an eventual decision would be dictated by how much pain Collins could tolerate or if the injury would heal in time for a return this season.

Ronald Leary will move into the starting lineup at left guard.

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Panthers sign Michael Griffin

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 28:  Free safety Michael Griffin #33 of the Tennessee Titans in action during the preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on August 28, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Panthers have made a veteran addition to their secondary.

The team announced Tuesday that they have signed former Titans safety Michael Griffin. Griffin was released by the Titans in February and signed with the Vikings in March, but didn’t make Minnesota’s roster coming out of the preseason.

Griffin, a 2007 first-round pick, played 141 games for the Titans over nine years with the organization. He was a two-time Pro Bowler during his run in Tennessee, but his play had slipped by the end of his time with the team.

He’ll join Kurt Coleman, Tre Boston and Colin Jones in Carolina with Dean Marlowe on injured reserve and Marcus Ball getting waived to make room for Griffin.

The Panthers also confirmed the signing of defensive tackle Kyle Love, who will help fill in for the injured Vernon Butler, and announced that defensive end Ryan Delaire is headed to injured reserve with a knee injury.

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Get to know Zachary Orr

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 11: Linebacker Zach Orr #54 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates in the first half of the Buffalo Bills vs. the Baltimore Ravens game at M&T Bank Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Ravens have one new first-year starter in 2016: Linebacker Zachary Orr. The undrafted free agent from North Texas in 2014 has made the most of the assignment, leading the team in tackles and notching the game-clinching interception to seal Sunday’s win at Jacksonville.

Orr joined PFT Live on Tuesday to discuss his team’s performance to date, the moment when he realized he belongs on the field with the rest of the Baltimore defense, and the strong temptation to keep running with the ball after he picked it off, in an effort to score a touchdown in a game the Ravens led by only two points.

Get to know him now, because based on the way he’s playing you’ll be hearing his name a lot more frequently throughout the rest of the season, and beyond.

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Cardinals dump Kameron Canaday two days after botched snap

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25:  Head Coach Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals watches his team warm up before the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on September 25, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) Getty Images

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians made no attempt to hide his anger about long snapper Kameron Canaday launching a snap too high for holder Drew Butler to corral on a field goal attempt during last Sunday’s 33-18 loss to the previously winless Bills.

“Grow the hell up,” Arians said, via the Associated Press. “It has nothing to do with anything but what’s between his ears.”

The Bills returned the botched snap for a touchdown and the Cardinals will have a new player doing the snapping when they host the Rams in Week Four. The team announced Tuesday that they have waived Canaday.

The 1-2 Cardinals made a few other roster moves. They waived 2016 fifth-round pick Marqui Christian after the safety was inactive for the first three games of the season and placed tight end Troy Niklas on injured reserve due to a wrist injury.

Arizona promoted tight end Ifeanyi Momah from the practice squad, leaving them with two open roster spots. One will likely go to a punter as Butler has ankle and Achilles issues that will keep him from punting this week, although he is able to serve as a holder.

Assuming, of course, the new Cardinals snapper is able to get the ball to him.

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MNF ratings hit all-time low

gettyimages-90902414-1024x576 Getty Images

More than 80 million watched the presidential debate on Monday night. For every 10 debate viewers, one watched Monday Night Football.

Via Richard Deitsch of SI.com, only 8.047 million watched the Falcons-Saints game. Based on numbers published Monday by SportsBusiness Daily, that’s the smallest total TV viewership in the 46-year history of the franchise.

Given the intense interest in the presidential campaign and shrinking prime-time viewership in eight of nine evening games played this year (relative to the same slots in 2015), it’s mildly surprising the total audience wasn’t even lower than that.

The NFL will try to rebound in Week Four, with the NFL Network-only broadcast of Dolphins-Bengals on Thursday night, Chiefs-Steelers on Sunday night, and Giants-Vikings on Monday night.

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Report: Bears putting Kyle Fuller on IR

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 01:   Kyle Fuller #23 of the Chicago Bears carries the football ahead of  Stefon Diggs #14 of the Minnesota Vikings after making an interception in the second quarter at Soldier Field on November 1, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Getty Images

The injury hits keep on coming for the Bears.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that cornerback Kyle Fuller is headed to injured reserve. Fuller has not played in the first three weeks of the season after having his knee scoped in August and will now miss at least the next eight games while on I.R.

The Bears already have cornerback Brandon Boykin and linebacker Lamarr Houston on injured reserve while defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, linebacker Danny Trevathan and cornerback Bryce Callahan missed Monday night’s game with injuries. Linebacker Pernell McPhee is on the PUP list and not eligible to join the team at practice or in games until after Week Six.

On the offensive side, quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Jeremy Langford are both injured while projected center Hroniss Grasu went on injured reserve before the season started.

Once Callahan is cleared to return, he’ll join Tracy Porter, Cre’von LeBlanc, Deiondre Harris, Sherrick McManis and Jacoby Glenn as active members of an underwhelming cornerback corps in Chicago.

The Bears are reportedly signing former Lions running back Joique Bell. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune reports that the team is also waiving linebacker Jonathan Anderson and tight end Greg Scruggs with linebacker John Timu getting bumped up from the practice squad.

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Redskins sign John Sullivan, place Kory Lichtensteiger on IR

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 13:  Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins celebrates with  Kory Lichtensteiger #78 of the Washington Redskins after Lichtensteiger recovered a fumble against the Dallas Cowboys on October 13, 2013 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

The word early on Tuesday was that Redskins center Kory Lichtensteiger might be headed to injured reserve due to a calf injury that coach Jay Gruden initially called “moderate” and that’s exactly what’s come to pass later in the day.

Lichtensteiger has been placed on injured reserve and the Redskins have announced the signing of former Vikings center John Sullivan. Sullivan worked out for the team earlier in the day.

Sullivan was a six-year starter for the Vikings before missing all of last season with a back injury. He will join Spencer Long as options for the Redskins with Lichtensteiger out of the lineup. The team will also be waiting to see if left guard Shawn Lauvao will be able to play after he hurt his ankle in the victory over the Giants.

The Redskins also officially placed safety DeAngelo Hall on injured reserve Tuesday because of a torn ACL. Defensive lineman Vinston Painter was signed off the practice squad to fill the open roster spot.

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Bills release kickoff specialist

ORCHARD PARK, NY - AUGUST 28:  Jordan Gay #4 of the Buffalo Bills warms up before the preseason game againt the Detroit Lions at Ralph Wilson Stadium on August 28, 2014 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Bills released kickoff specialist Jordan Gay on Tuesday.

No corresponding roster move was announced. The move was probably made to create a roster spot for later in the week when the Bills know more about the status of some of their injured players.

Gay had been with the Bills since 2014. He handled the kickoffs in two games this season.

The Bills also made two practice squad moves, adding wide receiver Ed Eagan and center Terran Vaughn to their practice squad and cutting linebacker Carlos Fields and safety Damian Parms.

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Branden Albert likely to be a game-time decision Thursday

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 29:   Branden Albert #76 of the Miami Dolphins in action against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on November 29, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Dolphins may be down to their third-string center against the Bengals on Thursday night, which would make the loss of another starting offensive lineman a tough pill to swallow.

It’s one they will have to be prepared for, though. Left tackle Branden Albert missed the team’s walkthrough practice on Tuesday because of an ankle injury and coach Adam Gase said that a call on Albert’s status for the game will likely go down to the wire.

“It looks better today than it did yesterday, so that’s encouraging to us,” Gase said, via ESPN.com. “When you got a veteran guy like that who knows how to get his body right fast, he’s a very tough guy. So we’ll just see how it plays out. I don’t know. I probably won’t know until [Thursday].”

If Albert can’t go, the team could move right guard Jermon Bushrod to left tackle, a position he’s played in the past, or they could push left guard Larmey Tunsil outside.

Center Anthony Steen has a high-ankle sprain and Mike Pouncey still isn’t practicing due to his hip injury. Tight end Jordan Cameron and running back Arian Foster have already been ruled out and two starting linebackers — Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins — didn’t practice.

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Bears sign running back Joique Bell

Wild Card Playoffs - Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

As if they didn’t have enough other problems, the Bears found themselves thin in the backfield with the injury to Jeremy Langford.

They found a familiar face to fill the gap, signing former Lions running back Joique Bell, according to Joique Bell’s social media.

The 30-year-old Bell had worked out for the Lions lately, but has a chance at a more immediate role with the Bears.

Langford is expected to miss four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain suffered Sunday night against the Cowboys. That left rookie Jordan Howard as the primary back, since Ka’Deem Carey was out with a hamstring injury.

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Giants sign a cornerback with two ailing

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 01: D.J. Foster #27 of the New England Patriots runs in for a touchdown in front of Michael Hunter #39 of the New York Giants during a preseason game at MetLife Stadium on September 1, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Giants aren’t sure whether running back Shane Vereen will miss the rest of the regular season as a result of a triceps injury, but they still went ahead and put him on injured reserve Tuesday.

While Vereen’s situation can be revisited after at least six weeks on the list, the move opened a roster spot now and the Giants used it for some insurance against a pair of other injuries. The team announced that they have added cornerback Michael Hunter to the active roster.

Hunter spent most of last week on the team’s roster before being dispatched on Saturday in favor of safety Andrew Adams, who had a crucial personal foul in their 29-27 loss to the Redskins. Hunter’s back because Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple both left that game with injuries that could leave them unavailable for this week’s game against the Vikings. Hunter was also with the team in the preseason.

In the even the Giants need more help at corner, they could promote Steelers 2015 fourth-round pick Doran Grant from the practice squad after also signing him on Tuesday.

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Mohamed Sanu “day-to-day” with shoulder injury

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 11:  Mohamed Sanu #12 of the Atlanta Falcons scores a two-point conversion against Chris Conte #23 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Georgia Dome on September 11, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said he’s good to go after hurting his left thumb in Monday night’s victory over the Saints, but it will be a little while before the team knows if wide receiver Mohamed Sanu qualifies for the same label.

For now, coach Dan Quinn is calling Sanu “day-to-day” as a result of the shoulder injury that knocked him out of the 45-32 win. Sanu left the game just before halftime.

Sanu, who signed with Atlanta as a free agent this offseason, had three catches for 31 yards before exiting the game. He has 11 catches for 130 yards overall, giving him the most catches of any wide receiver on the team.

Part of the reason for that is Julio Jones‘ quiet night against the Saints. Jones had one catch after a limited practice week as a result of a calf injury. Quinn said Tuesday, via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, that he doesn’t expect Jones to be limited in this week’s sessions.

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49ers add to receiving corps, sign Keshawn Martin

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 20:  Keshawn Martin #82 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The 49ers aren’t exactly what you’d call overburdened with offensive firepower at the moment.

So they made an addition to their receiving core, though he’s a lot like a lot of the other players they have on hand.

Per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the 49ers signed former Patriots wideout Keshawn Martin to a two-year deal.

Martin’s primarily been a special teamer, but it’s the 49ers, so who knows. Their current leading receiver is Jeremy Kerley (12 catches for 114 yards), so the bar is not exactly set particularly high.

Martin caught 24 passes for the Patriots last year, after spending his first three years with the Texans.

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Mike Tomlin says Le’Veon Bell will be ready to carry the load

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 01: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs the ball during the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on October 1, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) Getty Images

Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell is back from his three-game suspension, and coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t think he’ll have to ease Bell back into the lineup.

“His level of conditioning is not a concern to us,” Tomlin said of Bell. “A guy that is highly conditioned over a 12 month calendar. We have seen him every day, he has been a part of us, and he has been in the building. He is up to speed on what we are doing from a schematic standpoint and really in tune there. We will see how sharp he is physically once we get on the practice field. But rest assured, you are going to see Le’Veon Bell and probably a lot of him on Sunday.”

DeAngelo Williams did a good job filling in for Bell the first two weeks of the season, but last week Williams managed just eight carries for 21 yards in a blowout loss to the Eagles. The Steelers need Bell to help get their offense back on track.

When Bell is available he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL. Last year he averaged 93 yards a game on the ground and also caught four passes a game.

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Doug Pederson: Carson Wentz has some of same instincts as Brett Favre

Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz, center, celebrates with Jordan Matthews after Matthews scored a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez) AP

The Eagles are 3-0 and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has played well in all three games, which has led to some big names being tossed around when asked to compare him to other quarterbacks.

Coach Doug Pederson said Monday that Wentz’s film-watching habits are “Peyton Manning-ish” and offensive coordinator Frank Reich invoked Jim Kelly’s name earlier this month. Reich spent a lot of time watching Kelly when he was a backup with the Bills and Pederson compared Wentz to a Hall of Famer that he played behind in Green Bay on Tuesday.

While on Sirius XM NFL Radio with Brett Favre, Pederson said that Wentz has a few things in common with No. 4.

“Brett, watching you play and being with you for eight years in Green Bay, this kid has some of the same instincts — and I’ve said this to people — that you had,” Pederson said. “Eyes are always downfield, you’re looking for that big play, the home-run play, the broken play. And he’s got that in him and that’s something that’s very special. And you can’t teach that. That’s an instinct that a lot of people don’t have and we’re fortunate that our guy has it.”

Pederson mentioned Favre as a comp for Wentz during the draft as well, so the team didn’t wait until Wentz took the league by storm before putting him in some rarified company. The Eagles are on a bye week, which may slow the train down a little bit.

Or it might lead to someone calling him the second coming of Otto Graham because of their similar resting skills. In either case, it’s overwhelmingly clear that the Eagles like what they have in their rookie quarterback.

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