Real, meaningful football is officially back on Thursday night, and the first game of the season couldn’t have a more exciting narrative. The Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will kick off the regular season in a Super Bowl 50 rematch, only this game won’t be played on a neutral field. It’ll be played in the thin air of Denver, however that’s not the only difference from February. The two teams look substantially different after an offseason of changes for both. One team lost its second best defender and the other is essentially starting a rookie quarterback. Here are seven things that have changed since the last time these two teams met.
Josh Norman is now in Washington
The biggest change for the Panthers is the fact they no longer boast one of the best cornerbacks in the game. Norman was originally franchise tagged by the Panthers, but the sides couldn't work out a long-term deal, so Carolina let him become a free agent. Norman, of course, signed with the Redskins shortly thereafter, leaving a gaping hole at cornerback for the Panthers. Aside from Luke Kuechly, Norman was undoubtedly the team's best defensive player and thrived in the Cover 2 scheme. Although he didn’t often follow opposing No. 1 receivers around the field, he made his area a no-fly zone. He’ll certainly be missed this season, and his absence could lead to a huge step back for Carolina’s defense.
Getty ImagesEzra Shaw
It's Trevor Siemian's team now
No Peyton Manning? No Brock Osweiler? No problem. Well, there is a little bit of a problem, given that Siemian is starting his first NFL game. Furthermore, he’s taken only one snap in his young career, which was a kneel-down last season. His first test will be against the reigning NFC champions, who also boast one of the top defenses in football. The Broncos’ quarterback situation wasn’t good by any means last season, as they threw the most interceptions in the league, but this could be a new level of bad. Paxton Lynch is waiting in the wings as he’s undoubtedly the future of the franchise, however it’s clear the coaching staff isn’t ready to throw him into the fire. The Panthers will be sure to take advantage of Siemian’s inexperience on the big stage, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them blitz him early.
Denver Post via Getty ImagesSteve Nehf
Kelvin Benjamin is healthy again
Cam Newton was without his top target for all of 2015 after Benjamin went down with a torn ACL before the season even began. Benjamin obviously wasn’t on the field in the Super Bowl, and Newton definitely could have used him. The Broncos have two of the best cornerbacks in the league in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, so having Benjamin back in the fold will certainly help in those key matchups. Benjamin should have a good performance in his return to the field on Thursday night, and you can expect Newton to target him early and often when he drops back.
Denver’s left tackle
The Broncos have a new face at left tackle after trading Ryan Clady to the Jets and letting Ryan Harris walk in free agency. Clady was obviously injured last season, which gave Harris the starting job, but it’ll be Russell Okung anchoring the left side of the line on Thursday night. He came over in free agency after negotiating his own contract and is an upgrade over Harris. With the Panthers’ talented defensive line and pass rush, Okung should help to take pressure off of Siemian and open up running lanes for C.J. Anderson.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
C.J. Anderson is the workhorse back
Ronnie Hillman is no longer in the fold after being cut by the Broncos, giving way to Anderson as the top back. He’ll be backed up by Devontae Booker, but Anderson is going to receive most of the carries – something that hasn’t happened much in his career. The Broncos matched the Dolphins’ offer sheet this offseason, which shows the faith Denver has in him. Will he have success against Carolina’s stout front seven? That remains to be seen, but in the Super Bowl, he carried it 23 times for 90 yards and a touchdown. If the Broncos want to win with defense, they’ll have to keep the ball on offense by running the ball with Anderson.
Denver Post via Getty ImagesJoe Amon
The Panthers’ young secondary
The ripple effect of Norman’s departure has forced the Panthers to get remarkably younger. They’re expected to start two rookies at cornerback – Daryl Worley and James Bradberry – which could make for a rough night for Carolina’s defense. The Panthers are replacing three starters in the secondary after Charles Tillman retired and Roman Harper signed with the Saints. Fortunately, Carolina will be facing an extremely inexperienced quarterback in Siemian to kick off the year, so it’s not as if Bradberry and Worley will be defending passes from Tom Brady. Still, it’s not a great situation and is a severely downgraded secondary when compared to the one they fielded in the Super Bowl.
No more Danny Trevathan or Malik Jackson
The Panthers weren’t the only team to lose key defensive starters. The Broncos will also be without stud linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive end Malik Jackson. Both players signed elsewhere in free agency and will leave substantial holes at their respective positions. It will certainly impact Denver’s defense, which was arguably the best in football last season. The Panthers should have more success running the ball between the tackles without Trevathan in the fold, and Jackson won’t be there to eat up blocks for Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware on the edge.