North Carolina, get ready for commercials for the new Baker Box at Bojangles, because the Carolina Panthers have named a Week 1 starter. The team traded for Baker Mayfield in July, and have announced that he is their QB1.
Even though Mayfield struggled for the Cleveland Browns last season, and wasn’t on the Panthers’ roster until after OTAs and minicamp, the trade was made for a reason. In 2021, Sam Darnold started 11 games for Panthers and threw 13 interceptions, nine touchdowns, and also completed less than 60 percent of his passes while averaging only 6.2 yards per attempt.
The Panthers sent the New York Jets three draft picks to acquire Darnold, and it appears that they are going to have to consider that deal a sunk cost. He played poorly both before the injury to his throwing shoulder and after. Two seasons ago, Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff victory since Bill Belichick was their coach during the 1994 season. It’s an accomplishment that is almost deserving of a statue at FirstEnergy Field.
The Browns entered last season with high expectations, but injuries put them right back into the quicksand they have been stuck in since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999. Mayfield played through a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder for much of the year and it clearly affected his performance. Still, the Browns decided that they were through with him after going 8-9 in 2021. They traded him to the Panthers and received only a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick in return after sending away five draft picks — and their dignity — to acquire Deshaun Watson, who will not be allowed to take the field until Week 11.
Surely Mayfield would’ve preferred to have been a Panther since the spring, but after being traded for almost nothing, he ended up in a solid situation, especially as the Panthers have a proven No. 1 wide receiver in D.J. Moore. As bad as the Panthers’ quarterback situation was last season he still hauled in 93 passes for 1,157 yards. It was his third consecutive season with more than 1,100 yards receiving. Also, when Christian McCaffrey is at his best, he’s just as effective as a pass catcher as he is running the ball. In 2019 he tallied 116 receptions.
If McCaffrey can stay healthy, and sixth-overall draft pick Ikem Ekonwu turns out to be the star at left tackle that his suit was on draft night, the Panthers have a great chance at a wild-card spot in a week NFC The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will likely win the NFC South, but this will be the first season that the New Orleans Saints haven’t been led by Sean Payton since the Bountygate scandal, and that was a disaster even with Drew Brees at quarterback. They’re a giant question mark, and the Atlanta Falcons will likely be in the running for worst record in the NFL.
It’s rare to see a quarterback get moved as early in his career as Mayfield just was, and be able to turn his career around. Sure Jay Cutler owns most of the Chicago Bears’ passing records but that’s like being a 6-foot-6 high school basketball player in a conference of schools with 500 students. He also made the playoffs only once, and the consensus opinion of him did not change from what it was with the Denver Broncos.
Mayfield is in the final year of his rookie contract and if wants to cash in on more than just those “At Home with Baker” commercials, he needs to take advantage of this opportunity. Unlike Cutler with the Broncos, Mayfield has shown that he is capable of leading a team to the playoffs. It was his strong 2020 performance that made Jimmy Haslem hit the eject button after one setback, that had a lot to do with injuries to Mayfield and the rest of the team.
The Panthers may not be as strong an overall team as the Browns, but they do have more playmakers in the passing game. It’s not a perfect situation for Mayfield, but for his time with Browns flame out like it did, he’s fortunate to have ended up with a team that can compete immediately.
If Mayfield wants to be known for more than yard sales and book clubs, then he needs to show what this Panthers offense can look like with consistent quarterback play.