The Carolina Panthers acquired quarterback Baker Mayfield from the Cleveland Browns to serve as an upgrade over incumbent Sam Darnold. The price tag — a conditional fifth-round draft pick — wasn’t steep, especially compared to the haul the New York Jets extracted from the Panthers in 2021.
This trade means the Panthers have the No. 1 and No. 3 overall selections from the 2018 NFL Draft in their quarterback room.
Owner David Tepper is heading into his fifth season controlling the Panthers. Head coach Matt Rhule — the first coach hired under Tepper — is entering Year 3 of his seven-year, $62 million contract. It’s reasonable to assume that both are anxious — at the very least — to launch a legitimate playoff campaign. Another losing season will put Rhule’s tenure as head coach in grave jeopardy.
Football is a team game, but the Panthers’ win total ultimately hinges on what Mayfield and/or Darnold can do under center.
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Tale of the Tape: Sam Darnold vs. Baker Mayfield
The quarterback competition is more complicated than a side-by-side statistical comparison, but we’re going to look at some numbers anyway.
|Quarterback||Cmp%||TD||INT||YPA||QB Rating||Best QBR|
It’s nice to see the numbers side-by-side, but there’s more to consider before pundits can project the starter. Frankly, there’s a reason a pair of top-three drafted quarterbacks are desperately vying to salvage their NFL careers. Success in 2022 will be about the intangibles as much as producing stats. Who best orchestrates the offense, protects the football, and commands the team? He will serve as the Panthers’ Week 1 starter.
Projecting the Panthers’ Week 1 starter will require sports bettors and Panthers backers to dig beyond the headlines and preseason stats. Mayfield wasn’t acquired to be quarterback depth. He can compete for — and win — the starting job. Darnold is technically a little ahead of Mayfield in terms of exposure to the offense. However, it’s not as if Darnold and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo have a deep rapport. McAdoo was hired in January, and 2022 will be his first season with the Panthers.
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Mayfield isn’t going to turn a middle-of-the-pack team into a Super Bowl contender, but perhaps he can put them in position for a wild card berth. NC Sportsbooks aren’t painting the Panthers in a positive light. DraftKings Sportsbook, for example, is hanging +450 odds on them to qualify for the playoffs.
It’s easy to dismiss the Panthers as a legitimate postseason contender, but the reality is the NFC South isn’t particularly daunting. Sure, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers project to finish atop the division, but the changing of the guard occurs quickly in the NFL. Neither the New Orleans Saints nor Atlanta Falcons present formidable teams this season. Not on paper, at least. If the Panthers are going to scratch and claw their way into one of the NFC’s final postseason slots, a mediocre division will provide one of the biggest assists.
For the purpose of this exercise, we’re going to pretend this quarterback competition will elevate the offense a tier. Even so, there’s a lot that still needs to go right.
The offensive line needs to take a significant step forward, and the Panthers drafted tackle Ikem Ekwonu in the spring to accelerate that process. Running back Christian McCaffrey earned All-Pro honors in 2019 but has played a grand total of 10 games since. If he’s not healthy for the majority of the season, it won’t matter who’s under center. Finally, the pass-catching corps has room to raise its game as well — though, to be fair, its production is tied directly to the guy taking snaps.
On the plus side, the Panthers’ defense is a quality — sometimes dominant — unit. It surrendered the third-fewest yards-per-play (5.1) in the league last season and ranked seventh in pressure rate. The return of second-year cornerback Jaycee Horn will add to a dynamic secondary that should mesh well with a front four capable of wreaking havoc in opposing backfields.
As much attention as the quarterback battle warrants, Rhule deserves his space in the spotlight as well. He earned a reputation as a program builder at Temple and Baylor, where he struggled for two seasons at each stop before guiding his team to a significant jump in Year 3. How much of that collegiate success can be replicated as he heads into his third season as Panthers head coach? It’s not the hottest question in the Carolinas, but it’s burning nonetheless.
Nobody is going to take NC Super Bowl odds on the Panthers to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 57. If a bettor wants to chase a big plus-money payday, however, there are worse gambles than putting a few bucks on the Panthers to finish as the seventh best team in the conference and earn an 18th game this season.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson