First things first: Baker Mayfield will be wearing No. 6 with the Panthers this season.
Mayfield, who wore that digit in college and with the Cleveland Browns, was traded to the Panthers less than three weeks from the start of training camp. In addition to all the other problems that might cause with a transition to a new team, it also meant that his number had already been taken — by former Rams punter Johnny Hekker, also acquired by Carolina earlier this offseason.
“I did my own negotiating,” Mayfield said of his method for convincing Hekker to give up the number he’d also always worn. “Johnny’s got a chip on his shoulder too. He was an undrafted free agent, played a year for the Rams. He’s got something to prove.”
That word “too” that Mayfield threw in explains a great deal about why he, and the Panthers, are at the point they are in this offseason.
Mayfield was the Heisman-winning top pick in the draft four years ago and led the Browns to a playoff berth — a rarity in Cleveland in recent years. But injuries and clashes appeared to wear out his welcome with the Browns.
What one team sees as a problem, however, is atop another team’s wish list.
“I love the fact that he’s competitive and fiery,” said Panthers GM Scott Fitterer. “I came from a place, Seattle, where we had lots of personalities like that. It’s a component to a team that wins — guys that are fiery, emotional and want to win. It means so much for him.”
Just the fact that Mayfield wanted No. 6 symbolizes that inner fire.
“A lot of people think it’s my favorite number or something,” Mayfield said. “It’s not. It was given to me when I walked on at Texas Tech. I didn’t have a choice. Then, when I transferred to Oklahoma, they thought it was my favorite and just gave it to me. So now, it’s like a symbol of the journey I’ve been on.”
Mayfield also isn’t concerned about the jabs and anonymous comments that came out of Cleveland about his personality as he was on the trading block.
“Sometimes authenticity and playing with a passion can be (misinterpreted),” he said. “This is very different from a normal workplace. You play together. You win together. It’s about respect. And if people outside of that have misinterpretations, quite frankly, I don’t care.”
One place where it doesn’t seem there will be a clash is in the quarterback room. Mayfield and Sam Darnold, last season’s high-profile Panthers quarterback acquisition and starting quarterback, will compete for the starting job. The team has been clear on that point, and both players seem to be OK with that.
“It’s an open competition,” Fitterer said. “The reason we added Baker is to make the group better as a whole. … The competition will make Sam better. It will be good for Baker. It’s a fresh start for him and a very healthy situation for us to be in. I think they’re both going to rise and play their best football.”
Darnold quickly called his new teammate after the trade was announced last week.
“We’ve known each other a few years. He’s a great guy,” Mayfield said. “He welcomed me in and had tips on where to start looking for houses. I look forward to seeing him in the locker room and the quarterback room. It’s going to be special.”
Both players know the stakes and think they’ll end up winning the job.
“When you’re at any level as high as this, nobody has a mentality of being a backup,” Mayfield said. “At this level, everybody competes to be the very best. My intention is to become the best quarterback I can and help this team win.”
The trade has been several months in the making, which now puts Mayfield a bit behind in the competition. The Panthers and Browns originally discussed the deal around the NFL Draft in April, but things fell apart.
“On the second day of the draft, we both said, ‘Let’s put this on hold,’” Fitterer said. “Let’s both get through this weekend and through minicamp, and we’ll pick it up later. We had weekly check-ins but no urgency to get it done. We wanted to see what we had here.”
Darnold performed well during spring practices, further reducing the urgency to get something done, although finding someone to compete with him was always a priority.
“After the season we said, ‘What do we need to do to get better?’ Offensive line was the first area to improve,” said Fitterer, who selected NC State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick in late April. “Then we wanted to stabilize the quarterback position. Sam played well when we could protect him. He had three good games to start the year. When we protect him, he takes care of the ball, he plays good football. But we needed to add a veteran to the mix to stabilize the position, so we can go into the year feeling good about where the team is going.”
On Day 1 of the Baker Mayfield era, everyone is feeling good. Especially the new No. 6 on the roster.
“I’m just glad Johnny was reasonable in the negotiations,” Mayfield said.