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The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton has Griffin by three inches and 40 pounds.

“Of course everybody knows that he’s a great athlete,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “He can run with the football, but I think his priority is to pass the ball. I think he gets the ball down the field very well. He stretches the field very well and at the end of the day when he doesn’t have any option, that’s when he becomes even more dangerous when he uses his legs.”

The Saints had mixed success in two games against Newton last season.

In the first meeting in Charlotte Newton threw for 224 yards and combined for three touchdowns. The Saints needed a late touchdown drive from Drew Brees to pull that game out 30-27.

However, the Saints defense manhandled him in the season finale, limiting the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year to 158 yards passing and one touchdown. They sacked Newton three times and intercepted him once in a 45-17 rout.

But a lot has changed since then.

The Saints have a new defensive coordinator with Steve Spagnuolo and will be without middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who’s on the PUP list.

“I think they look like a team that’s trying to figure out the new system,” Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said. “Everybody goes through that transition period at some point and they’re in that transition period.”

Notes: Smith was limited in practice after developing some soreness in his right knee, but Rivera said the five-time Pro Bowl receiver will play Sunday. … Defensive end Greg Hardy was sent home early Thursday with an illness. … Running back Jonathan Stewart practiced full and Rivera said he looked more confident running and cutting. … Reserve linebacker Kenny Onatolu missed his second straight day of practice following the death of his mother earlier this week.