Panthers mailbag: Line remains concern

Starting quarterback Cam Newton is recovering from fractured ribs after recovering from offseason ankle surgery. Defensive end Charles Johnson played in only one preseason game because of a nagging hamstring injury and end Greg Hardy missed the last game with a shoulder contusion.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has a small cast on his right hand to protect a hyperextended thumb.

New strong safety Roman Harper missed the first three preseason games with turf toe and only was in for a few plays in the finale.

Not a pretty picture for the Carolina Panthers.

But coach Ron Rivera isn't concerned, insisting all of these key players will be ready for the opener at Tampa Bay a week from today.

"That's the nature of the game," Rivera said. "This could happen in the regular season and we'd have to adapt. It's basically the next man up."

Rivera seems confident, but are you?

Let's get to your questions and a few bold predictions for a Sunday mailbag:

@DNewtonESPN: The major concern begins and ends with the offensive line. This group was way too inconsistent during the preseason and remains an unknown heading into the opener against a very good Tampa Bay defense. The lack of a sustained drive -- without the help of penalties -- with all the starters in four preseason games is my biggest cause for concern. There's no question the athletic ability is there with left tackle Byron Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler, but they still have much to prove under fire.

@DNewtonESPN: Look, strong safety Quintin Mikell wasn't signed until the week before the 2013 season and Mike Mitchell didn't become a major contributor at free safety until Charles Godfrey suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 2. Experience-wise, this group starts with an edge. With the pressure the front seven puts on the quarterback, they don't have to be spectacular. They just have to play smart. Again, my biggest worry would be the offensive line.

@DNewtonESPN: Philly Brown definitely has a chance to make a big impact as the top returner and the fourth or fifth wide receiver, although his drops at both are a concern. There's not another undrafted rookie I would put in the impactful category. But running back Fozzy Whittaker and wide receiver Brenton Bersin both came into the league as undrafted players and both will play roles this season, particularly Bersin. The former Wofford star doesn't have blazing speed, but he has good hands and he legitimately earned a roster spot as arguably the fourth-best receiver.

@DNewtonESPN: He'll definitely be the No. 1 target, but you set the bar high. Jerry Rice, arguably the best receiver in NFL history, only had 49 catches for 927 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie. Randy Moss only had 69 catches as a rookie, albeit he had an amazing 17 touchdowns and 1,313 yards. Moss also had Cris Carter and Jake Reed to take the heat off him. Calvin Johnson only had 48 catches for 756 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. I'd say the Panthers would be happy to get 50 to 60 catches for 8-10 touchdowns and close to 1,000 yards out of Benjamin.

@DNewtonESPN: Jonathan Stewart has only topped 18 catches once and he never had more than 47, that in 2011. So 50 is a tall order. But if he stays healthy, he will be a big part of the receiving game.

@DNewtonESPN: I hope you didn't bet the mortgage on that.

@DNewtonESPN: No indication of that. Rivera was emphatic that if Newton plays, he will run the entire offense, including the read option.