QB battle looms over Panthers’ preseason

Sam Darnold vs. Baker Mayfield is the top training camp storyline

Quarterback Baker Mayfield arrives at Panthers’ training camp Tuesday at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

When an NFL team opens training camp, it’s standard practice to preview the season by running down the top storylines and position battles that need to be worked out before things kickoff.

The Carolina Panthers certainly have a list of each, but the top item on both lists dwarfs everything else as the team gets back to work for the 2022 season.

The Panthers have two former franchise quarterbacks, each abandoned by the franchise that drafted him. They were Carolina’s top acquisitions in each of the last two offseasons. The team desperately hopes that one of them will be its quarterback of the present and future. It just needs to figure out which one.

Sam Darnold has a tumultuous first year with the Panthers under his belt. He was acquired last offseason after wearing out his welcome with the Jets and started the 2021 campaign with three straight wins, including an opening day victory over his old team.

Things went sideways, however, as the Panthers’ offensive line proved unable to protect him. Darnold’s confidence in the pocket and decision-making plummeted as the hits accumulated, and injury and performance sent him to the bench as Carolina signed Cam Newton off the street. Darnold returned to the starting lineup late in the season, but question marks remained on whether he was the answer at quarterback.

So the Panthers brought in Baker Mayfield following trade talks that occupied much of the offseason before being consummated late last month. A former Heisman Trophy winner and top pick of the Cleveland Browns, he saw the team sour on him through an injury-plagued season last year.

Carolina GM Scott Fitterer declared that Mayfield vs. Darnold will be an “open competition” in camp, although newcomer Mayfield is the likely early favorite. He led the Browns to the playoffs before last year’s struggles, and the mere fact that bringing in someone to push Darnold was a priority for the Panthers is an indication of the team’s uncertainty about the latter as the starter.

There are, however, other areas to watch as the Panthers return to work.

Is the rebuilt offensive line finally fixed?

There was no question that getting some reinforcements on the line was the team’s top offseason priority, and there are new faces pretty much across the board. The Panthers drafted a potential franchise left tackle in Ikem Ekwonu, who had been rumored as a potential top overall pick, out of NC State. They also added free agents Austin Corbett and Bradley Bozeman. Bozeman will need to win the center job from last year’s starter, Pat Elflein, who is also battling Brady Christensen for a guard spot.

On paper, the line looks improved, but the Panthers have brought in rookies and free agents before and the line always seems to be an issue. Until the five starters show it on the field, it will still be a question mark for fans and for Darnold, who felt firsthand the impact of problems on the line last season.

Is the defense able to withstand attrition?

The Panthers were stronger on defense than offense last season and rightfully focused on fixing the offensive side of the ball this offseason. That came at the expense of some hits on D, however. The team lost pass rusher Haason Reddick, tackle DaQuan Jones, linebacker Jermaine Carter and corner Stephon Gilmore. It will be younger this season as the team looks to fill the spots that were vacated.

The secondary appears to be the most set. The Panthers will get back Jaycee Horn, last year’s first-round draft pick who missed most of the season with injury. CJ Henderson, acquired in a midseason trade, will also have a full offseason and camp with the team.

Frankie Luvu will get a chance to replace Reddick as a pass rusher in an expanded role. He was able to bring energy off the bench last season, but he’ll need to keep his performance at a high level as his snaps increase this year. He’ll be pushed by Cory Littleton, who was signed in the offseason.

Up front, the team added a pass rusher in Matt Ioannidis, who has battled injury. New faces and new roles could mean it will take time for the defensive units to jell.

Overall offensive unfamiliarity

In addition to the quarterback battle and new line, the offense has a new person calling the shots in coordinator Ben McAdoo, hired by Matt Rhule in the offseason. There were some questions about whether Mayfield was a good match for McAdoo’s offense, but it will be new to everyone on that side of the ball.

Look for the Panthers to devote the preseason to learning from the mistakes that are sure to result from a team that is assembling the pieces but still looking to fit them all together.