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Panthers eager to see retooled offense in action

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- For a sneak preview of how the Carolina Panthers are evolving offensively heading into their preseason opener Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET against the Houston Texans, let's turn to a member of the defense who sees it each day.

For his evaluation, free safety Kurt Coleman began with baseball terminology.

"If you see a fastball over and over again, you're going to be able to time it up and hit it," Coleman said. "So it's the off-speed, being able to change directions, being able to manipulate the defense the way you want to.

"That's what this offense is really evolving into. They have the pieces and the makeup to be able to run the up-tempo, run the slowdown, hit you with one formation and then with the same personnel hit you with a totally different formation. It's really tough right now for us to get a hold on what they're doing."

And all this without starting quarterback Cam Newton, who won't play in the game against the Texans as he continues to rest his surgically repaired shoulder.

But even though Newton has been a spectator since midway through a July 30 practice, when he was pulled for soreness and fatigue, the offense has continued to grow.

Running back Christian McCaffrey has proven to be as dynamic as the Panthers expected when they selected him with the eighth pick of the draft. He has lined up everywhere on the field as a back and wide receiver.

He even lined up in the shotgun in the Wildcat formation.

His versatility as a runner and receiver has opened up layers of the offense that weren't there on a regular basis before. That has helped Newton (prior to his being rested) and backup Derek Anderson get the ball into the hands of their playmakers more instead of relying on the quarterback to carry the load.

McCaffrey has been so impressive that Rivera said the former Stanford star was ahead of where you would expect a rookie to be, a tribute to McCaffrey's preparation and football IQ.

"They're really utilizing the playmakers that they have, and when [second-round pick Curtis] Samuel comes back, that's going to be another dimension," Coleman said.

McCaffrey and Samuel, a slot receiver out of Ohio State who can also play running back, have similar skills. Samuel hasn't been able to practice because of a hamstring injury, but he showed signs the past two days of being ready to return soon.

His versatility should help open up more layers of the offense for wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess and tight end Greg Olsen.

"Funch and KB on the outside, and it's opening up the lanes for a lot of the playmakers on the inside like Greg and Christian ... all the guys that are coming through the middle," Coleman said.

Coach Ron Rivera likes what he's seen thus far, but he wants to see how it works against another defense. The Texans -- who ranked first in the NFL in total defense last year even though star defensive end J.J. Watt played in only three games -- will be a good test.

"Some of the changes that we have implemented are going to be beneficial to us," Rivera said. "Some of the players we have brought in, that we have drafted, are going to add to what we want to and what we're trying to do.

"I really think we can grow and become even more explosive."

The Panthers led the NFL in scoring in 2015 but fell to 15th last season, scoring about nine fewer points a game. Newton also took a beating behind an offensive line plagued by injuries.

So Rivera and his staff spent the offseason rebuilding the line and surrounding Newton with more dynamic weapons. The objective is to have more of a quick-strike offense that will rely less on Newton out of the read-option and reduce the number of hits he takes waiting for longer plays to develop.

Newton was adapting well before being pulled as part of the team's cautious approach to his rehab. He has thrown on the side the past three days, an indication he is close to returning.

Team officials say they aren't concerned, that Newton is on track to be ready for the regular-season opener.

Newton ultimately will benefit from this evolution. But so will the defense, which is getting more looks in practice that are similar to what the D will see every week from teams such as Atlanta and New Orleans.

"That's one of the really good things about it," Rivera said. "We come here and do start with the basics. But the thing that always seems to happen is you get right into the complicated. If you can handle those early on, it's going to benefit you.

"That's one of the things about being a multifaceted offense. It helps your defense in terms of growth."