Prescott, Newton face similar challenges entering opener
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 FOWARD: 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.