Dak Prescott and Cam Newton find themselves in similar situations entering Sunday’s regular-season opener at Carolina.
Both quarterbacks are adjusting to a new group of receivers and playing behind banged-up offensive lines.
The Dallas Cowboys will be seeking 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 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 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 exchibiton game.
Newton faces similar issues for 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 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 recently, but it’s still unclear if they’ll be healthy enough to play.
MACK TO DEBUT FOR BEARS
Although Matt Nagy has yet to coach a game for the Bears, he is proving as adept as a veteran coach at keeping trade secrets.
After a week of avoiding certainties, Nagy all but confirmed new outside linebacker Khalil Mack will play at Green Bay on Sunday night. And even then, he avoided clarity.
“Yeah, there’s a good shot of playing,” Nagy said Friday. “We just don’t know how much.”
Asked if Mack could play the entire game rushing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers off the edge, Nagy said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
The only comment Mack made on his availability came Wednesday when he said: “You’ll see on Sunday. Under the lights.”
Mack brought his pass rush ability to Chicago from Oakland in a trade last weekend after holding out of training camp and exhibition games, so questions about his conditioning had to be answered before he could play.
Also, he had to take a crash course in coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense. Linebackers coach Brandon Staley has been assisting him in this.
It’s not a common situation, but Fangio said the Rams’ Aaron Donald did something similar last year after a holdout. He played and produced immediately.
“Aaron Donald was in that same predicament last year, signing right before his first game that he played with a new defense,” Fangio said. “He played 48 plays, some other guys have played in the 20s. I think everybody’s individual but it’s something we’re going to have to manage and keep an eye on.”
Teammates have been impressed with what they’ve seen on the practice field.
“He’s a person that could change the whole dynamic, you know?” nose tackle Eddie Goldman said. “A lot of attention’s going to be on him and that’ll open up a lot of opportunities for me and other guys on the D-line, too.”
Goldman helped to cement the future of the defense Friday by signing a four-year contract extension through the 2022 season. He would have been a free agent after this season.
With the potential of Mack causing havoc, Goldman sees a chance for the Bears to remain good defensively long term.
“I think the oldest guy is like 28, 29, so a lot of guys could be here for a long time, and hopefully build a legacy that we hope to remember,” Goldman said.
The Packers are debuting their own defensive changes against the Bears, even if they might not initially make as much of a splash as Chicago’s acquisition of Mack.
But the effectiveness of those new wrinkles could be just as important to the fortunes of a team seeking to return to the playoffs.
After playing it safe in the preseason, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine finally can take the wraps off the Packers’ revamped scheme Sunday night.
“It just opens up everything,” linebacker Nick Perry said Thursday. “I think from attacking it off the edge, attacking it inside, you have more options to attack.”
The Packers ranked 22nd in defense last year. It was especially a problem given that Rodgers was limited to seven games because of a collarbone injury.
Rodgers has the talent to cover up deficiencies in other areas of the team. With Rodgers out, everyone else had to step up. Instead, the Packers finished 7-9 and their streak of postseason appearances ended at eight years.
Changes include the firing of longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He was replaced by Pettine, the former head coach of the Browns, who stuck with the 3-4 defense as the base scheme.
So far, so good for the transition.
“I know in preseason, we’re keeping it basic,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “So it’ll be cool to kind of dive into the playbook on Sunday and see how we kind of compete and get the job done.”
They will be expected to get pressure with just four outside linebackers on the roster. Perry and fellow veteran Clay Matthews will be backed up by Reggie Gilbert, who emerged in the preseason to become the top reserve; and Kyler Fackrell, a third-round draft pick in 2016.