Barring a major meltdown, it looks like Cam Newton will start the regular season opener for the Panthers. (AP Photo)
CHARLOTTE -- Barring a complete meltdown Thursday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, it appears Cam Newton will be the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback to open the season.
Coach Ron Rivera said Newton will start against the Bengals and play about three quarters.
Although Rivera stopped short of naming Newton the starter for the Sept. 11 regular season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, it's the strongest indication yet the Panthers are leaning toward starting the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, news everyone has suspected for several weeks now.
"It will give us an opportunity to see how he'll handle the whole game experience and we'll go from there," Rivera said.
When asked if that means Newton will start the regular season opener, Rivera said, "No, it makes him the starter for Thursday. We are still in the evaluation process after having gone through a game where we did some good things, but not enough good things.
"I think the big thing we have to do is continue to evaluate the situation and the circumstances. I think we've only gone through about three-and-a-half or four weeks of training camp and to rush to a decision would be kind of absurd. We want to see how he handles this whole game week situation."
The Panthers are going through a "mock week" preparation for Thursday night's game, simulating a regular season game week.
Rivera previously had said he planned to name his regular season starter this week.
But Newton didn't do much to earn the job in his first preseason start Friday night against the Dolphins, completing 7 of 14 passes for 66 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He only managed to lead the Panthers to three first downs -- and no points -- in five offensive possessions and only once did the Panthers manage to move into Dolphins territory.
When asked what he needs to see from Newton to convince him that hes deserving of being the starter, Rivera said, "One of the things he has to continue to do is make good decisions.
"We had an opportunity to break the tape down and really see some good things. It didn't show obviously, but the biggest thing is he was a making good decisions and that's probably the biggest thing. Anytime you see a guy make the decisions that you're supposed to make the next part of it is delivering the ball on time and hitting the receivers in stride and stuff like that."
Rivera said the biggest thing Newton has to improve upon is his mechanics, although he's seen improvement from him.
"That is one thing he's getting better at," Rivera said. "You put the tape on you watch his mechanics from the first day of camp to the last game and you would go, 'Wow.' And that was one of the nice things in talking to (quarterbacks coach) Mike Shula about him was that mechanically he's gotten better. So there is a lot of promise. What we need to see is consistency."
If Newton starts, Jimmy Clausen will be the backup and Derek Anderson will be third string.
NOTES: Ron Rivera said Greg Hardy, who returned to practice this week, will be the team's starting right defensive end this season. "He's an every down defensive end for us," Rivera said. " He will work himself back into shape and when he's ready to go he'll be one of our starting defensive ends." .... Also, Jon Beason, Jeff Otah, Geoff Schwartz, Mike Goodson and Tony Fiammetta were among those held out of practice due to lingering injuries.