CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Panthers now have two of the top three overall picks from the 2018 NFL draft class on their roster, and both happen to be quarterbacks.
The big question is which one will start this season for Carolina.
The Panthers view their starting QB job as an open competition between the newly acquired Baker Mayfield and incumbent Sam Darnold, one that will ultimately be decided at training camp and in preseason games.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule has previously said he viewed Darnold as his starter, but that was before the team announced Wednesday it had agreed to a trade with Cleveland for Mayfield, whose relationship with the Browns quickly deteriorated after they began pursuing and later landed quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans.
Trade talks between the Panthers and Browns had been ongoing for months, but the deal didn’t come to fruition until Mayfield helped bridge the financial gap between the teams by agreeing to take a $3.5 million pay cut. The Browns will pay Mayfield $10.5 million in 2022 and the Panthers will pay him $4.8 million.
Mayfield passed his physical exam with the Panthers on Thursday and the contract is expected to be finalized and signed early next week, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team has deal has yet to be signed.
Both Mayfield and Darnold are set to become unrestricted free agents after the season.
Mayfield enters the competition with a presumptive edge over Darnold — at least on paper.
The former No. 1 pick from Oklahoma is 29-30 as an NFL starter in four seasons with Cleveland, helping lead the Browns to a playoff win in 2020 after finishing 11-5 in the regular season. He’s thrown for 14,125 yards with 92 touchdowns and 56 interceptions.
Darnold, the No. 3 pick in ‘18, is 17-32 as a starter with the New York Jets and Panthers and has never posted a winning season, let alone reach the playoffs. He’s thrown for 10,624 yards with 54 touchdowns and 52 interceptions.
But for Mayfield to win the job he’ll first have to win over new Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, a former critic of his, and catch up on the team’s playbook installation.
When McAdoo was out of football in 2018, he told the New York Post he had plenty of reservations about Mayfield in the NFL, including his height, athleticism, hand size and the offense he played in with the Sooners.
“I didn’t see a lot of pro-style football in his college tape,” McAdoo said. “And if you’re short you have to be able to make up for it some way, somehow, and personality doesn’t do that. I didn’t think he was a great athlete. This guy is kind of like a pocket quarterback that is short and with small hands, that’s what I worry about.”
And then there’s Panthers wide receiver Robbie Anderson, who earlier this offseason addressed reports that Mayfield may wind up in Carolina by responding with “Nooooo” on social media.
Anderson has since said he was trying to be supportive of his teammate Darnold, and that it wasn’t meant to be a dig at Mayfield. He also tweeted on Wednesday, “I don’t have an issue with Baker stop tryna paint that narrative.”
The addition of Mayfield represents Carolina’s latest attempt to find stability at the quarterback position.
The Panthers haven’t made the playoffs since 2017 and owner David Tepper has said in the past the team’s top priority is shoring up its QB spot.
The revolving door started in earnest in 2000 when Carolina replaced longtime starter Cam Newton with Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater went 4-11 in 15 starts before being dealt to the Denver Broncos after just one season.
The Panthers then sent three picks to the New York Jets for Darnold last year, figuring they could resurrect his sagging career. But Darnold struggled with decision-making behind a patchwork offensive line, going 4-7 as a starter with 13 interceptions and nine touchdown passes while being sacked 35 times. The team re-signed Newton midseason, but he failed to win in five starts and was not brought back this offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
It seems the team has been looking for Darnold’s replacement since finishing 5-12 last season.
Carolina set its sights on Watson, making a big push to land the controversial QB only to lose out to the Browns. And Carolina drafted Matt Corral from Mississippi in the third round with an eye toward developing him for the future.
If nothing else, Mayfield’s arrival adds some intrigue to Carolina’s regular-season home opener against the Browns on Sept. 11.
TickPick, a secondary ticket marketplace, reports it sold more tickets on Wednesday for the Browns-Panthers game after the trade was announced than for the entire month of June combined and the cheapest ticket increased from $78 to $133.