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Rivera optimistic Newton will start; Panthers thin at CB

October 14, 2016
FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2016, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) walks to the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Denver. The Panthers are hoping Newton can get back on the field in preparation for Sunday's game against New Orleans, but right now he remains in the concussion protocol.(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2016, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) walks to the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Denver. The Panthers are hoping Newton can get back on the field in preparation for Sunday's game against New Orleans, but right now he remains in the concussion protocol.(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney, File)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Panthers coach Ron Rivera said quarterback Cam Newton is expected to start Sunday against the New Orleans Saints “barring a setback” in his recovery from a concussion.

Newton participated fully in practice Friday, but remains in the league’s concussion protocol. Rivera said the league’s reigning MVP still has to meet with an independent doctor before being cleared to play.

Rivera also said running back Jonathan Stewart is expected to return to action after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury.

However, Carolina has other injury concerns, most notably in the secondary where it will be without both starting cornerbacks when facing Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has thrown 27 touchdown passes in his last seven games at the Superdome.

James Bradberry (toe) and Robert McClain (hamstring) have been ruled out, along with offensive tackle Michael Oher (concussion) and defensive tackles Vernon Butler (ankle) and Paul Soliai (foot).

The Panthers are expected to start either Teddy Williams or rookie Zack Sanchez opposite rookie Daryl Worley at cornerback. Safety Colin Jones is expected to start at the nickel position.

With only three healthy cornerbacks on the roster, Rivera said the team is leaning toward signing Lou Young from the practice squad and activating him Sunday.

“We have to play the guys that are available to us, that is the truth of the matter,” Rivera said. “So we’ll go from there.”

Carolina’s secondary has been a problem ever since the decision to remove the franchise tag from 2015 All-Pro Josh Norman this past offseason.

Carolina went into the season with Bradberry and Bene Benwikere as the starting cornerbacks. However, Benwikere was cut after Carolina allowed Atlanta’s Matt Ryan to throw for 503 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-33 Week 4 loss to the Falcons. Bradberry developed turf toe in that game and hasn’t practiced since.

That left the Panthers with McClain, a journeyman cornerback, and Worley as their starters last week against Tampa Bay. The Panthers held the Buccaneers to 17 points and only allowed one touchdown pass, but McClain came up hobbling with a hamstring injury on Wednesday.

Williams, the team’s fifth option at cornerback at the beginning of the season, said he’s looking forward to the challenge if he gets a chance to start against Brees.

“Drew puts his clothes on the same way we do — one leg at a time with his pants, and one arm at a time with his shirt,” Williams said. “You got out and the competitor in you that you have had inside since you were a little kid, you want to go out and compete against the best. So lining up across from him and seeing him over there makes you happy and anxious to go and get that first hit.”

Newton, Stewart, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and defensive end Charles Johnson are listed as questionable but are expected to play.

Newton hasn’t spoken to reporters since suffering a concussion on Oct. 2 against the Falcons, but did post a message on Instagram from the late motivational speaker Jim Rohn:

“Don’t wish it was easier, wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems, wish for more skills,” Newton said in the post.

The Panthers are 1-4 and have lost three straight games.

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