Panthers, Jaguars looking for playmakers following injuries

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Carolina and Jacksonville are opening the season in search of new playmakers.

The Panthers are without standout receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during training camp last month. The Jaguars are without tight end Julius Thomas, who will miss at least three games with a broken right hand.

Benjamin's season-ending injury was a bigger blow than losing Thomas for the month, but both could prove to be early season stumbling blocks for the Panthers and Jaguars.

''Life goes on,'' Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. ''We're ready to go, ready to turn the page and get this season started.''

It might be easier said than done.

Benjamin had developed into Carolina's go-to receiver after setting franchise rookie records with 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Making matters worse for Carolina's receiving corps, Stephen Hill is on injured reserve with a knee injury.

The Panthers responded by acquiring Kevin Norwood, a fourth-round pick in 2014, from Seattle to help fill the void. They also have rookie Devin Funchess, Corey Brown, Ted Ginn Jr. and veteran Jerricho Cotchery. But it's unclear which one will step up.

It might be tight end Greg Olsen, who caught 84 passes for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns last season. The only tight end with more yards last season was New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski.

''Greg is a Pro Bowl tight end. He's produced so much for this team and we're expecting big things from him like no other this year,'' Newton said. ''He's a person that can accept the challenge and ready to take on what may be his biggest year yet.''

The Jaguars won't have their two-time Pro Bowl tight end, Thomas.

Thomas broke a bone in the back of his right hand in the preseason opener and had surgery last week to repair ligament damage. The decision came after Thomas got a second opinion.

After signing a five-year, $46 million contract that included $24 million guaranteed in free agency, Thomas was expected to be a featured part of Jacksonville's revamped offense. Now, the Jaguars will rely on backup tight end Marcedes Lewis and second-year receiver Allen Robinson.

''Julius Thomas is a very good player and he is a big part of us,'' Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. ''We had plans for him and we are going to utilize his skill set. I don't want to diminish that fact, but if there is any positive, it is that it happened in preseason. We had some games to operate without him. I think that offensively, players stepped up. Players adjust. They are professionals.''

Some things to know about Carolina and Jacksonville heading into the opener:

RIVERA RANTS: Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn't a fan of season openers. ''I hate the first game of the season because there's so much that is unknown'' he said. ''The one thing you have to do is focus is on you. You've got to do your job, do your assignment, be disciplined because it's so hard. ... Do I want to win the first one? Obviously I do. If you don't, to me, you're in a little bit of a hole, but it's still early so you've got time to make up ground.''

WOUNDED CATS: The Jaguars already know most of their game-day inactives. WR Marqise Lee (hamstring), LB LaRoy Reynolds (knee), TE Julius Thomas (hand), DE Andre Branch (knee) and DT Sen'Derrick Marks (knee) are unlikely to play because of injuries.

FAMILY AFFAIR: The coaching staffs feature two family connections. Jim and Kelly Skipper will be on opposite sidelines. Jim is Carolina's running backs coach, and Kelly is Jacksonville's running backs coach. Jaguars defensive coordinator Bob Babich's son-in-law, Cameron Turner, is the Panthers' assistant receivers coach. Asked who his daughter will be pulling for, Babich said: ''She better be pulling for her father. Then he quipped, ''If she was pulling for me, maybe she would be living with me.''

20-YEAR REMATCH: Carolina and Jacksonville came into the league together, beginning as expansion franchises in 1995. They first played in the Hall of Fame Game that season, the preseason opener. It's probably no coincidence that they're meeting 20 years later to kick off the season.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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