First preseason game spotlights Panthers’ position battles

The quarterback competition is heating up, along with other positions

Panthers coach Matt Rhule talks with running back D'Onta Foreman during the team's training camp at Wofford College last Wednesday in Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

Fans will get their first look at the 2022 Carolina Panthers on Saturday night when the team opens the preseason with a game at Washington.

With just over two weeks of camp under their collective belt, the Panthers are still very much a work in progress, although some players to watch and leaders in various battles for positions and roster spots have begun to emerge.

Here are some areas to focus on when the Panthers hit the field on Saturday.

Quarterback clarity

The top story heading into training camp was Carolina’s quarterback battle. Last year’s opening day starter, Sam Darnold, was looking to hold onto his job against former Browns top pick Baker Mayfield, acquired in an offseason trade.

After a virtual dead heat in week one, it appears that there is now a clear frontrunner. Mayfield, who was struggling to take in the new system at the start of camp, looks much more comfortable and familiar as the practices wear on.

Most camp observers have come away impressed with Mayfield, and NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport reported on what has been obvious to most, saying, “Baker Mayfield does have the inside track to the starting quarterback job. Now it is a competition, they’re essentially splitting reps and that is going to be the case probably through the preseason games. But this is very clear, based on kind of the understanding he has of the offense and based on the kind of plays he can make and the kind of command he is already getting inside this locker room, it certainly does seem like it is Baker Mayfield’s job to win.”

Coach Matt Rhule has refused to name a favorite, but he did say, “What (Mayfield) has done in 10 days is impressive.”

How impressive? Reports emerged at the start of this week that the Panthers were quietly shopping Darnold, looking to trade him to a team that has a sudden need at quarterback, although they were having trouble finding any takers due to his contract.

Reports quickly emerged afterward, saying that the team had no intention of trading Darnold.

Regardless of whether he’s being shopped or not, Darnold will need to play catch up in the opener against the Commanders if he has any hope of holding off Mayfield for the QB1 job.

Backup running back

It’s doubtful we’ll see running back Christian McCaffrey at all this preseason as the Panthers look to keep their biggest offensive weapon injury-free. That means the players angling to back up McCaffrey will be getting the bulk of the carries, looking to win the job. Chuba Hubbard, a rookie last season, is trying to build off of his 612 yards and five scores.

Hubbard is being pushed by veteran D’Onta Foreman, signed from the Tennessee Titans. He had a similar season to Hubbard last year, rushing for 566 yards and three touchdowns in his fourth NFL season.

Foreman has impressed in camp, but McCaffrey and Rhule have both had praise for Hubbard.

“Chuba has had an excellent camp,” the coach said. “He’s gotten better and better. His pass protection has improved as well.”

“He’s made some massive jumps,” McCaffrey added. “He works his (butt) off every day. He’s become very reliable.”

Receiver depth

The Panthers were comfortable with rising star DJ Moore at one receiver spot. He and veteran Robby Anderson would give whoever wins the quarterback job a solid starting corps to throw to, but there were questions about who would step up to provide depth at receiver. Shi Smith had limited playing time in his rookie season and was arrested in March on handgun charges.

Terrence Marshall, another rookie last year, had just 138 receiving yards. He entered camp with the inside track on the third receiver spot and has been impressive.

The position also got a little deeper with the emergence of Rashard Higgins. Like Anderson, a former Jet who found his old chemistry when reunited with Darnold last year, Higgins is catching balls from a familiar face. He played with Mayfield in Cleveland and has 1,890 yards and 12 touchdowns in six seasons. He’s had some big plays, including one long touchdown from Mayfield that ignited a team celebration, earning the offense a scolding from Rhule and extra running.

Defensive battles

The secondary is unsettled with Jaycee Horn missing most of his rookie year and CJ Henderson looking to spend a season in the same system after a mid-year trade in 2021. The Panthers also need to figure out the rotation of edge rushers who will play opposite Brian Burns.