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NFL

Who will be the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback? Darnold vs Mayfield

The quarterback battle taking place in Charlotte will decide who starts for the Panthers in Week 1, with the ex-Browns QB set to win it.

Update:
The quarterback battle taking place in Charlotte will decide who starts for the Panthers in Week 1, with the ex-Browns QB set to win it.
Scott TaetschAFP

Baker Mayfield was the number one pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the most important selection by the Cleveland Browns after their two infamous tanking years with Hue Jackson as head coach. The NY Giants picked RB Saquon Barkley second, just ahead of their neighbors, the Jets, whose QB search landed them with Sam Darnold, the player projected to be number in the Draft by some analysts. These two players each had a franchise committed to making them their offensive leaders and trusting them to make them better, to begin an era of winning behind a talented quarterback. They are now scrambling for a single starting spot with the Carolina Panthers, who drafted neither of them and are just cycling through QBs before they find their own franchise guy. Tough break for both Mayfield and Darnold, but there are still NFL games to be played for whoever wins their battle this preseason.

An unbalanced QB battle

Darnold was the Panthers’ starter last season, as the Jets moved on from him while he was still on his rookie contract, trading him for fourth and sixth-round picks. The New York team selected QB Zach Wilson in 2021 just three years after getting Darnold, and they still have their battles to fight as Wilson had a middling rookie season and is now injured ahead of this season, but the Jets were ready to move on from their past top 3 pick. The Panthers and Darnold had a good start to the season last year, with a 3-0 record, but they flamed out quickly as Darnold showed his deficiencies en route to a 5-12 2021 season. The Panthers know what they have in Darnold now, they are unconvinced by it, and even if his fifth year option means the team will pay him over $18 million this year, bringing in another QB seemed necessary for Matt Rhule and his coaching staff.

This means that Mayfield, a QB with a higher pedigree and success in the league than Darnold so far, has the edge in the race to become the starting quarterback for the Panthers. You do not bring in a guy to compete for the starting QB spot if you do not need one. The Browns had to trade Mayfield, as he was now to be benched behind Deshaun Watson and had a disappointing 2021 season, so Carolina will only have to pay Mayfield $5 million, with the rest being paid by Cleveland and Mayfield accepting a $3.5 million pay cut.

Mayfield had a nagging shoulder injury last season, but he still posted a better passer rating than Darnold, 83.1 over 71.9, even if both of those numbers are way below league average. Darnold seems to be too inconsistent to be a starting QB in the NFL, while Mayfield has shown that, even if his lows are very low, he can be a competent player and lead a team to the Playoffs, which must be Carolina’s goal this coming season.

Mayfield starts first preseason game

Rhule said he wanted both of his QBs to get “between six and eight plays” in the team’s first preseason game against the Washington Commanders, as the bulk of Saturday’s clash was played by practice squad players, but the order in which they played already shows something. Mayfield started the game, leading his team to a TD during his one and only drive, before he was replaced by Darnold. The ex-Jets man only played for a couple of drives as well, but all the signs point the same way.

Mayfield’s debut was an uneventful one, with the 27-year-old going 4/7 for 45 yards and Darnold registering just 2/3 but with a TD pass. This battle will go on for a few weeks more as teams ramp up their games ahead of the NFL opening week, but Rhule seems to want Mayfield to be the one taking the first snap in Week 1. This is not a team expected to challenge for the NFL title and none of their QBs have earned total security, so their performances during the season may also mean that whoever starts the campaign is not the one to finish it, but if Mayfield can come back to his old self and offer more to the Panthers than Darnold can, then the job seems to have his name on it.

Carolina’s easy start to the season

The Panthers’ three first games are against teams that are not contenders, so a strong start to the season will be key to their fortunes this year, and to Mayfield’s chances of keeping the starting job. They open the season against the Watson-less Browns, before going against the NY Giants and the, perhaps rebuilding, New Orleans Saints. They should win two of three if they want to be in a good position before a tough four-game run against the Cardinals, the 49ers, the champs the Rams, and the Buccaneers.

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