Panthers QB Baker Mayfield better despite Matt Rhule silence

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule is playing his cards close to the vest, but let me spell out exactly what I’m seeing at the team’s training camp in Spartanburg:

There’s no doubt Baker Mayfield is winning this quarterback competition.

Mayfield hasn’t looked great by any means, but he’s been good enough to be better than Sam Darnold.

Rhule said Saturday that he probably wouldn’t announce the winner of the QB competition until sometime after the New England preseason game Aug. 19. But it looks to me like Mayfield has taken the lead and now just needs to not mess it up and not get hurt to be able to start in Week 1 vs. his old team, the Cleveland Browns, on Sept. 11 in Charlotte.

The two QBs have been cordial with one another, trying to avoid the sort of drama that is inherent when a team doesn’t know who is going to play its most important position with the season opener a month away.

“It’s not about trying to stab one another in the back,” Mayfield said Monday of the QB competition. “It’s about elevating, because the franchise and the team go as the QB room goes.”

Neither QB could move the ball worth a darn in two-minute drill simulations Monday against Carolina’s defense, which is clearly ahead of the offense at this point. The difference was more about who made the big mistake, and that was Darnold.

After getting behind the chains due to a penalty, he misread a coverage, threw into a crowded area and got intercepted by Sean Chandler. It was a depressingly familiar sight to watch Darnold do this, so much so that 45 seconds before it happened, I turned to the two guys next to me watching practice and said: “I feel a Darnold interception coming on.”

That wasn’t a hard prediction to make, because those were too often the exact situations in which Darnold threw picks last year (he had nine TD passes but 13 interceptions in 2021, going 4-7 as a starter). Sometimes, Darnold looks better than he was in 2021, but a lot of the time he doesn’t.

Carolina Panthers quarterbacks Baker Mayfield, left, Sam Darnold, center and Matt Corral, right, all may play in the team’s first exhibition at Washington Saturday. JEFF SINER

Mayfield completes more balls downfield than Darnold and he’s picking up the offense fast enough that Darnold’s six-month advantage in learning new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s playbook is starting to evaporate.

“He’s definitely improving,” Rhule said of Mayfield Monday, “as he gets more and more of a feel for what he can do at the line of scrimmage… What he’s done in 10 days (of training camp practice) is pretty impressive. He’s making really good jumps.”

Mayfield also gets more balls batted down at the line of scrimmage than Darnold does, owing in part to Darnold’s height advantage (officially two inches, but it looks more like four to me). And you’d want Darnold on the quarterback sneak before you’d want Mayfield.

But the QB’s main job is throwing to open receivers, and Mayfield looks better at that. He’s learning his top guys now in DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson.

“DJ’s a guy (who you) just give him a chance,” Mayfield said. “He’s a contested-catch guy, real physical at the top of his routes… Robbie… just being able to separate with his speed and trusting that he’s going to run by people. The cliched thing of, ‘if he’s even, he’s leavin’ — that’s true of Robbie.”

Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield, left, and Sam Darnold at a training camp practice. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez

As for rookie Matt Corral: he can throw, which is no surprise. But he needs more seasoning, and right now is going to be this team’s No. 3 QB, with P.J. Walker the odd man out unless someone gets hurt.

Maybe I’m wrong, Rhule runs a double reverse and Darnold will end up starting. I do think he will be on the roster regardless. I don’t set any stock on the latest Darnold trade rumor, simply because the team that already was willing to offer a major ransom for Darnold already employs him (looking at you, Panthers).

“I’m just gonna continue to do me and do what I can to put myself in a good position,” Darnold said Monday.

At some point, both of them are going to play during the regular season. I don’t think either of these QBs are durable enough, nor their revamped offensive line quite good enough, to start all 17 games.

But the guy who starts Week 1?

Looks like Baker all the way to me.

This story was originally published August 9, 2022 6:02 AM.

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and has earned 18 national APSE awards. He hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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