WEEK 1 PREVIEW: Panthers host Cowboys in first home-opener since 2013

WEEK 1 PREVIEW: Panthers host Cowboys in first home-opener since 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton will trot out on the field Sunday to begin his eighth season as the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback.

In that span, he's only missed three regular-season games.

[Panthers kick-off season opener with pregame party for fans]

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Newton, who passed for more than 3,300 yards with 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season, will look to give the home crowd optimism from the start.

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The Panthers open the new year against the Dallas Cowboys at Bank of America Stadium in uptown Charlotte.

Kickoff is set for 4:25 p.m. Sunday and will be televised by Fox.

This will be the first time Carolina has opened the season at home since 2013.

The Panthers will be without second-year wide receiver Curtis Samuel who suffered a "medical illness," according to the Panthers.

Still, Newton will have his offensive unit ready, led by running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end Greg Olsen and wide receivers Torrey Smith, Devin Funchess and D.J. Moore.

In 2017, the Panthers were 19th overall in offense and seventh on defense.

Linebacker Thomas Davis will start his four-game suspension.

Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson lead the linebacker corps in Davis' absence. The Panthers added defensive lineman Dontari Poe to the roster, along with rookie second-round draft pick Donte Jackson, to join defensive backs Mike Adams and James Bradberry and defensive lineman Kawann Short and Mario Addison.

Unlike last season, the Cowboys will start the season with standout running back Ezekial Elliott, who missed six games in 2017.

Quarterback Dak Prescott is behind an offensive lineman anchored by former first-round selection Zack Martin.

The Cowboys were 14th in offense and eight in defense last season.

Dallas posted a 9-7 record last season, while Carolina won 11 games before losing to New Orleans in the wild-card game. The Panthers have made the postseason in four of the past five seasons.

The Panthers are 9-14 all-time on opening weekend. The Cowboys are 38-19 in their first game, tying with Denver for the highest winning percentage of all-time.

Dallas leads the all-time series against Carolina 9-4.

Mystery: Newton anxious to see what Panthers have on offense

Cam Newton says he's extremely comfortable playing in new coordinator Norv Turner's scheme and is thrilled with the talent the Panthers have surrounded him with on offense.

But the eighth-year quarterback isn't going out on a limb and making predictions on what Carolina might achieve this season.

"We don't know what we have yet and that is why Sunday is so important for everybody - because we finally find out," Newton said in preparation for the team's home opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

The Panthers added speed at wide receiver - trading for Torrey Smith, signing free agent Jarius Wright and drafting D.J. Moore from Maryland in the first round. Wide receiver Devin Funchess returns as the No. 1 receiver and three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen is healthy again after missing nine games in 2017 with a foot injury. Second-year running back Christian McCaffrey figures to be a vital part of the offense in the run and pass game, and the Panthers added 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Anderson behind him.

That's a lot of different options for Newton - which coach Ron Rivera said is by design.

Rivera wants Newton to get back to what he was doing in 2015 when he spread the ball, completing at least 10 passes to nine different receivers. The formula worked well as Newton threw for a career-high 35 touchdowns and won league MVP honors while leading the Panthers to 15 straight wins and a Super Bowl appearance.

"I think that plays very to the type of football team that we want to be," Rivera said. "(Defenses) can't key in on one or two guys and they have to play the whole field and that can work to our advantage if we have guys that can make plays."

Rivera fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula this past offseason after Newton regressed - at least statistically - the past two seasons.

Turner, who Rivera once worked under in San Diego, was hired to bring a little more creativity to the offense - and help improve Newton's poor career 58.5 completion percentage. Newton, who played under Turner understudy Rob Chudzinski earlier in his career, said the adjustment to the offense has been smooth.

Now he's ready to test the waters.

"I'm excited to play a full four quarters of football," Newton said. "... Hopefully we can be hitting on all cylinders as far as efficiency and executing."

Coach Jason Garrett said stopping Newton on Sunday will be key.

"He's big, he's strong, he's athletic, he has a great feel for making plays both as a runner and as a passer," Garrett said. "He can play well within their system. He can play well when the play breaks down. He's just a dynamic guy. He's hard to tackle, he's hard to tackle in the pocket, he's hard to tackle when he's out on the run, he's got a big, strong arm and can throw the ball anywhere on the field."

Newton enters this season not having to worry about his shoulder being an issue. Rotator cuff surgery last year forced Newton to miss most of OTAs and minicamp and a portion of training camp. He only threw two passes in the 2017 preseason.

Newton said he's in the great shape entering the season.

"A person once told me there are two type of football players in the NFL -- there are football players and professional football players," Newton said. "Football players are those guys that just wake up and think things that happen and professional football players are guys that make things happen."

Newton said he certain goals is mind, but wasn't ready to share them.

The former Heisman Trophy winner said he plans to match all charitable donations to the Cam Newton Foundation and Boys and Girls Clubs of America for every touchdown he scores this season.

"I'm putting my money where my mouth is," Newton said, added he plans to score "a lot."

Just how much, we'll begin to find out on Sunday.

Prescott, Newton face similar challenges entering opener

Dak Prescott and Cam Newton find themselves in similar situations entering Sunday's regular-season opener at Carolina.

Both quarterbacks are adjusting to a new group of receivers and playing behind banged-up offensive lines.

The Cowboys will be looking to replace wide receiver Dez Bryant , the team's career leader in touchdown catches, and tight end Jason Whitten, who retired after 15 seasons.

That's no easy task.

The primary options to be slot receiver are Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns and rookie Michael Gallup. But Tavon Austin and Terrance Williams could be factors, too. Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin are the top two tight ends.

"I think each of the guys we have who are going to be up for this game are versatile," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "You can put them in different spots."

Dallas also has holes to fill up front with All-Pro center Travis Frederick battling a rare auto-immune disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome and is doubtful for the game. Six-year veteran Joe Looney will get the start alongside rookie left guard Connor Williams. However Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin is set to start after dealing with a hyperextended left knee in the second preseason game.

Newton faces similar issues in Carolina.

The Panthers upgraded their speed at wide receiver in the offseason by trading for veteran Torrey Smith, signing free agent slot receiver Jairus Wright and using a first-round draft pick on D.J. Moore. All three figure to play a role in the passing game alongside returning No. 1 receiver Devin Funchess.

"We don't know what we have yet and that is why Sunday is so important for everybody - because we finally find out," Newton said.

Carolina's offensive line was going to have a difficult time replacing All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell - and that was before it got hit hard by the injuries.

Second-team All-Pro right tackle Daryl Williams, left tackle Matt Kalil and Norwell replacement Amini Silatolu all went down with knee injuries in the preseason. Kalil went on injured reserve , meaning Taylor Moton will make his first NFL start at left tackle. Williams and Silatolu returned to practice this week, but it's still unclear if they'll be healthy enough to play against Dallas.

RARE HOME OPENER: Coach Ron Rivera joked this week that he "has to get used to" the idea of playing a home opener. In Rivera's eight seasons in Carolina, this is only the second time the team has opened the season at home.

DAVIS SUSPENSION: The Panthers will be without weakside linebacker Thomas Davis, who's suspended four games for testing positive for PEDs.

That's a pretty big blow to the defense given Davis' skills and leadership. But Rivera is high on 2015 first-round draft pick Shaq Thompson, who has had an outstanding preseason filling in. Thompson was drafted as Davis' heir apparent, but the veteran continued playing at a high level, thus limiting Thompson's reps. So this is Thompson's chance to shine.

Rivera said Thompson has potential to be "an elite linebacker in the league."

ELLIOTT FALLING FORWARD: Ezekiel Elliott doesn't have to worry about a suspension hanging over his head to start this season. The Cowboys' third-year running back may be primed for a big season, which concerns Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

"He's an elite running back," Kuechly said. "He's big, he's strong and he's powerful. He will run though you, and he always falls forward (for more yards). ... So when we hit him, we have to keep him where he's at and not let him do that."

McCAFFREY'S ROLE: It's time to find out if Rivera backs up his statement about wanting to get running back Christian McCaffrey "25-30 touches per game." Rivera has said the team would like to use McCaffrey similar to how the San Diego Chargers used Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson.

That seems like a lot of touches, particularly for a player with a slender build such as McCaffrey. But it's hard to blame Carolina for wanting to get the ball into the hands of its playmaker as much as possible.

KICKING DEBUT: Brett Maher is set for his NFL regular-season debut as the replacement for Cowboys career field goal leader Dan Bailey. Dallas cut the second-most accurate kicker in league history because of Bailey's struggles after an injury last season and his relatively large salary for his position. The 28-year-old Maher has four years of CFL experience.

"In this profession, every single thing that you do is kind of pressure-packed," Maher said.