CHARLOTTE, NC (Jourdan Rodrigue/CharlotteObserver) - The Carolina Panthers begin their preseason at Buffalo on Thursday night, and they'll see many familiar faces with the Bills..
Some of the former Panthers will be friendly, head coach Sean McDermott, general manager Brandon Beane, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, but one might be a little awkward.
Former Panthers first-round draft pick and current Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin took a shot at quarterback Cam Newton this week, and it shook up both fan bases.
But it's the preseason, so the dramatics won't play out on the field. At least not for long.
Carolina will play Newton for a series (maybe two, if the first is a three-and-out), before pulling him for backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who will play a little with the ones before the second team comes in.
Here are seven key players to watch Thursday:
The second-year offensive lineman will start at right tackle for the Panthers and must prove out of the gate that he belongs.
According to a league source, there's "probably a good chance" that the original starter, Daryl Williams, will start the season on injured reserve. That move would not likely happen until final roster cuts are made, so that Williams can be one of two possible players who can be designated to return from injured reserve.
It's deja vu in Carolina, where a rookie undrafted free agent left guard is going to start in place of an injured Amini Silatolu — just like former star left guard Andrew Norwell had to do in 2014.
Mahon, a Penn State product, will play a lot of snaps on Thursday night since the other starting left guard candidate, Tyler Larsen, will play much of the game at center. Larsen signed a two-year extension on Wednesday as the team began preparing for a future without Pro Bowl veteran Ryan Kalil, who said he's retiring after the season.
Jackson, the lightning-fast rookie cornerback out of LSU, has really impressed in camp and will play a ton. He wants to show he's the real deal, and if he impresses through the preseason, he could very well take the starting job opposite James Bradberry.
How he's used in different matchups will be interesting to watch, too. He and Kevon Seymour will rotate often as the coaching staff tests different combinations based on the receivers they will face.
Gaulden, a rookie third-round pick, will get a lot of time at safety, and perhaps even at the "Buffalo" (big nickel) depending on the matchup.
The coaching staff has thrown a lot at Gaulden in the opening weeks of training camp. He's a smart and physical player, and will get a chance to show what he's learned, though veteran Da'Norris Searcy will likely earn the start.
We have yet to see one of the biggest pluses of rookie first-round pick D.J. Moore's receiving game — his ability to create yards after the catch — because players don't often go full-contact against each other in practice. But Moore's college film shows his prodigious skill after the catch, and that's one of the reasons general manager Marty Hurney drafted him.
Jermaine Carter Jr.
The rookie linebacker out of Maryland might have been a fifth-round pick, but he's seen some time with the first team lately in training camp as a traditional linebacker and in "Buffalo."
His smarts and athleticism make him a prime candidate for the Panthers' standard at linebacker, and he and fellow rookie Andre Smith, who has similar traits, will begin competing for roster spots Thursday.
Carolina played to a theme in this draft class: speed, speed speed. That carried over to Ole Miss defensive end Haynes, whose quicks have been hassling offensive linemen for two weeks in practice.