Marcio Jose Sanchez-AP

Marcio Jose Sanchez-AP



Carolina Panthers (0–0–0) vs. San Francisco 49ers (0–0–0)

Kyle Shanahan makes his 49ers' coaching debut for the home opener against a once familiar foe in the NFC South as his team hosts the Carolina Panthers. Last season, the 49ers finished with an abysmal 2–14 record and look to redirect themselves under new leadership. Their first test begins against a Carolina Panthers team that also underwhelmed last year but has all the makings of a bounce back season.

Key Factors

Free Safety — Jimmie Ward was slated to become the featured "Earl Thomas" free safety in DC Robert Saleh's new 4–3 scheme but now looks doubtful to play after missing the entire preseason with hamstring injuries. That puts the 49ers in a tough situation; they now have to rotate between undrafted rookie Lorenzo Jerome, Jaquiski Tartt, and seventh-round pick Adrian Colbert. Only Tartt has any real NFL playing experience and the Panthers' receivers are towering, with Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, and Greg Olsen, all of who are listed at 6'5". That could mean trouble defending them in the red zone.

Run Game — New 49ers' quarterback Brian Hoyer was near-perfect on play action passing attempts this preseason but otherwise his preseason was a sizable downgrade. Can the 49ers sustain a decent run game? What makes this matchup particularly tough is that the Panthers' strength is their defensive tackles which coincides with the 49ers' deficiencies along the interior of the trenches. 49ers' guards Brandon Fusco and Zane Beadles are just average while Panthers' defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei are All-Pro talents. In order for Shanahan to have his full arsenal of plays, he needs to establish a run game between Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida.

Christian McCaffrey — The Panthers selected Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey with their top draft pick this year and they are expected to use him in a variety of ways as both a runner and a receiver. His elusiveness is off the charts and with its proximity to Pali Alto, he'll be even more motivated to make his NFL debut in Santa Clara. The 49ers will have their hands full covering McCaffrey and Olsen in the passing game; NaVorro Bowman and rookie Reuben Foster will likely be the ones covering them. It's been rumored that the Panthers have an entire set of plays devoted just for the rookie, so watch out.

How Healthy is Cam Newton? — Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton has been recovering from a shoulder injury this entire offseason and no one has really seen him at full speed. Newton has certainly taken his fair share of hits in his career which is probably why they drafted McCaffrey and receiver Curtis Samuel. The 49ers could have some opportunities to get to Newton, especially with their new front seven that features first-round talents in DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and rookie Solomon Thomas. Matt Kalil was Carolina's prized free agent signing at left tackle to protect Newton but he's been underwhelming the last couple seasons.

Overall Thoughts

Sure, the 49ers will field a more competitive team but I just feel that the battle in the trenches will be too overwhelming for the 49ers to establish a consistent push for Hoyer and this offense. 49ers' receiver Marquise Goodwin could be an X-Factor down the stretch with his speed. The 49er Faithful are extremely optimistic about the rebuild but I'm not so ready to hand them any wins quite yet.

Panthers -4.5 Under 47.5

Panthers 24 49ers 17