Christian McCaffrey's explosiveness stands out in Panthers' loss

Between the turnovers, missed tackles and overall sloppy play by the Carolina Panthers in the first half of Saturday's 34-27 preseason loss to the Tennessee Titans, one thing stood out:

Rookie Christian McCaffrey.

And it seems almost wrong to call him a rookie at this point.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back showed the dynamic playmaking ability and explosiveness that prompted the Panthers use the No. 8 pick of the draft on the former Stanford star.

McCaffrey rushed three times for 33 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He had two catches for 39 yards, 38 of that coming on a screen pass from Derek Anderson.

The more he is involved in the offense, the better this offense is.

Here are other observations from Carolina's setback at Nissan Stadium in Nashville:

QB depth chart: Cam Newton, as expected, didn't play for the second straight game as he continues to rehab his surgically repaired shoulder. But Newton is expected to increase his reps next week in practice, and he could make his preseason debut on Thursday at Jacksonville. Anderson and the first-team offense struggled early in this one. Devin Funchess fumbled on Carolina's first offensive play, and Anderson was intercepted on the first play of the third series when a linebacker tipped his pass. This all came after coach Ron Rivera called the offense out for "terrible'' plays in Thursday's joint practice against the Titans. Terrible seemed to fit here too.

When it was starters vs. starters, the Panthers looked ... dreadful. The offense had two turnovers on its first three series, and it accumulated only 8 total yards. It wasn't until a Kelvin Benjamin catch near the end of the first quarter that the offense had a first down. It wasn't until McCaffrey made a few big plays that the offense showed much life at all. The defense wasn't any better, although it was put in bad situations by the offense. Cornerback Daryl Worley struggled in coverage and appeared to have a miscommunication that left Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker wide open for a 4-yard touchdown catch.

One reason to be concerned: With 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler (knee) and veteran Kyle Love out indefinitely, the Panthers are thin at defensive tackle behind starters Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Butler is targeted to be ready for the opener, but Carolina needs that four-man rotation in the middle to be most effective defensively. That was obvious, as the backups didn't get much of a push to pressure the quarterback and were knocked off the ball badly, allowing a couple of long runs.

That guy could start: This is not to suggest Joe Webb would start over Newton. But Webb showed he has command of this offense and could push Anderson for time if Newton's shoulder isn't ready for the opener. Webb completed 5 of 6 pass attempts for 67 yards and a touchdown and rushed two times for 17 yards. He looked as sharp as he had the past few preseasons, and he helped bring energy to the offense that wasn't there in the mistake-prone first half with Anderson under center.

Rookie watch: As mentioned, McCaffrey looked like everything the Panthers hoped he would on draft day. His explosiveness that has been most evident during practice when he gets one-on-one in the secondary was just as impressive on a couple of runs up the middle. This kid can fly. Sixth-round pick Alex Armah, a fullback from West Georgia, also showed his playmaking ability with a 20-yard touchdown catch. Second-round pick Curtis Samuel (hamstring) still hasn't shown what he can do, but he might get the chance next week. He began working in individual drills during the two joint practices with the Titans and might be ready to face the Jaguars. He can be just as explosive as McCaffrey in the slot.

Byrd watching: Damiere Byrd had a big day in the preseason opener, catching four passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't have a catch in this contest. He made a few questionable plays on special teams -- fielding a punt inside the 5-yard line and bringing a kickoff out of the end zone that left the offense in a hole. While Byrd appears to be a lock as the fifth or sixth receiver and a kick returner, he has to be more consistent. Brenton Bersin, arguably the best route runner on the team, also is pushing for a spot. He did hurt his shoulder in the second half, so stay tuned for more on that.

Kicker watch: As solid as veteran Graham Gano has looked in practice, seventh-round pick Harrison Butker isn't making the place-kicking job an easy decision. Butker had a 46-yard field goal against the Titans, to go with a 51-yarder the week before against Houston. He also had touchbacks on his first two kickoffs. The kid has a strong leg. And Butker comes a lot cheaper than Gano, who counts $4 million against the salary cap in 2017 and is a free agent after the season.