Little QB drama at start of Panthers camp

The Sam Darnold-Baker Mayfield battle has been overshadowed by a rookie

While Baker Mayfield, right, and Sam Darnold, center, battle to be the Panthers’ starting quarterback, rookie Matt Corral, left, has already turned heads at the start of training camp. (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

Maybe we were all looking at the wrong quarterbacks.

Just over one week into Carolina Panthers training camp, the epic battle between Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield has been relatively quiet. Darnold, last season’s starter, and Mayfield, acquired in a major offseason trade with Cleveland, have alternated days as QB1, with each getting equal time with the first team.

The idea behind alternating days is that each quarterback will have an extended period to build a rapport with his receivers if he’s with the same group all day.

So far, neither quarterback has seized the job. Coach Matt Rhule pointed out that Mayfield is operating from a disadvantage since he’s still learning the system.

“Obviously, Baker got the install last night, this morning he’s out here trying to execute it,” Rhule said early in camp. “I couldn’t be more pleased with Baker — how much he’s learned of what we’ve done. But there’s way more to put in to kinda get through that phase.”

Both quarterbacks have said and done the right things, rooting for each other and avoiding any speculation on who will have the ball on opening day.

“Our evaluation will be in totality over a period of time,” Rhule said. “Sometimes you’re playing with players that are a little more experienced when you’re with the 1’s. You’re also playing against players that are a little more experienced. I think you take all that into account. But we’re not looking at any one day for this. It’s really over time.”

Mayfield has been building good chemistry with DJ Moore, finding the star receiver in the end zone for multiple touchdowns. That’s a good start toward eventually securing the starting job.

While the top two quarterbacks have avoided making headlines, rookie passer Matt Corral has captured everyone’s eye.

Corral has made a point of being the first player onto the practice field each day, and he’s made the most of it once his offensive teammates get around to joining him, making several highlight film plays during the first week of practices. He’s had a quick release and shown probably the best accuracy of any of the quarterbacks so far in camp.

While the bigger names are battling to see who will get the job this year, Corral’s early returns are showing that he might be ready to take the reins as the team’s quarterback of the future.

Corral has been finding receiver Shi Smith, who has impressed after a lackluster rookie season. Another Smith, Panthers’ legendary pass catcher Steve, has noticed, appearing on a Charlotte area station and raving about the rookie quarterback.

“Matt Corral impressin’ me,” Steve Smith said. “At the end of the day, I know ball. And I know a good player when I see him, just like I know a bad player when I see him. Matt Corral is about a year or two away from being the starting quarterback for this Carolina Panthers team. The boy has it. He can play. But he needs to learn.”

Some other storylines emerging from the start of Panthers camp have focused more on what’s not happening on the field. Running back Christian McCaffrey has battled injury throughout his career, and the team is playing it safe with its top offensive weapon by limiting his snaps. He may not see the field much, if at all, in the preseason.

Last year’s first-round pick Jaycee Horn, who saw his rookie season cut short by injury, has also been slow to see time. He opened camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, spending more time on the stationary bike than on the field.

The team took him off PUP at the start of this week, although he wasn’t in full pads in his first few practices. Rhule said the team will “ramp him up” as camp wears on.

“Let him do individual (work) and it’ll be a day-by-day process until he’s full go,” Rhule said.

The offensive line was rebuilt over the offseason, and the newcomers appear to be locking up starting jobs over the incumbents, at least based on early performance. Bradley Bozeman, signed after four years with the Ravens, has been getting the bulk of the first-team snaps at center, while Pat Elflein, who ended last season as the center, has been on the second unit. Elflein is versatile and can also fill in at guard, so his roster spot is likely secure.

The same can’t be said for Cam Erving. With first-rounder Ikem Ekwonu expected to start at left tackle, the veteran Erving, who disappointed last season, is seeing his odds of making the team getting longer and longer. He was spotted working out with the third and fourth teams during week one.

Of course, once the preseason games start, opportunities for everyone to impress or disappoint will be multiplied. As the top two quarterbacks seem to realize, the training camp race is just getting started.