Baker Mayfield’s trade to Carolina Panthers can be missing link to playoff berth

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Carolina Panthers trade for Baker Mayfield

Quarterback Baker Mayfield being traded to the Panthers — the rumor that finally became reality on Wednesday — may not work. It might fail miserably.

But it’s sure worth a try, especially given the relatively small price the Panthers paid for what is a one-year rental at the NFL’s most important position. It even has a chance of being the move that pushes Carolina to a playoff berth, if the new offensive line is as good as advertised and the defense plays as well as it should.

Mayfield will instantly become the most dynamic QB quarterback the Panthers have employed since Cam Newton. When you’re Carolina and you get a chance to take that sort of shot, you have to, even though this is very much a short-term gamble and not a long-term fix. Mayfield, like Sam Darnold, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2023. Acquiring Mayfield three weeks before training camp starts is the sort of bold/desperate move made by a GM in Scott Fitterer and a coach in Matt Rhule who are acting like their jobs depend on their 2022 record. And that’s appropriate, because they do.

We all know Panthers owner David Tepper is fine with pulling the plug on anything he doesn’t think is going well. The now-defunct Rock Hill training facility and former Charlotte FC coach Miguel Angel Ramirez, axed less than halfway through the team’s inaugural season, are just two recent examples. And although Tepper has preached patience with the Panthers, Rhule has gone 5-11 and 5-12 in his two seasons in Charlotte and is on the hot seat.

This year has to work, or else someone big will go. Likely two someones — both Fitterer and Rhule, and Rhule is likely on the shorter leash. There’s no “Wait ‘til next year” right now for the Panthers, because no one knows who’s going to be around next year, other than Carolina’s long-suffering fans, Sir Purr and the Sam Mills statue.

Mayfield cost Carolina only a conditional fifth-round pick in 2024 and $4.858 million in 2022 salary-cap room, with Cleveland picking up $10.5 million of Mayfield’s original 2022 contract and Mayfield agreeing to forgo another $3.5 million to get the deal done. The deal will be completed only when Mayfield passes his physical Thursday afternoon, but there aren’t expected to be any problems there.

If Mayfield plays roughly 70% of Carolina’s offensive snaps in 2022, the 2024 draft pick Carolina sent to Cleveland becomes a fourth-rounder instead of a fifth, a source with direct knowledge of the deal said. The three sides — Cleveland, Carolina and the Mayfield camp — were about a million dollars apart over the past week, and all three compromised at the end to get the financial part done.

The capital expended by the Panthers was cheap for a starting QB, which is certainly what Mayfield should be. His ascension to first-teamer may not occur before the suddenly symbolic Browns/Panthers season opener in Charlotte on Sept. 11, given the head start Sam Darnold has in learning the system of new Carolina offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. But it’s inevitable.

Darnold has been worse in just about every statistical way than Mayfield since the two joined the league in 2018 (Mayfield as the No. 1 pick, Darnold as No. 3), and you don’t trade for Baker Mayfield to let him sit on the bench for long. The Panthers can call this a competition all they want; Mayfield will eventually earn the job, one way or another. But there are also no plans to trade Darnold.

Deshaun Watson v. Baker Mayfield

Mayfield wanted out of Cleveland, of course, because the Browns made the morally repugnant decision to trade for QB Deshaun Watson and then give him the most player-friendly contract in NFL history, despite the fact the NFL seems likely to suspend Watson for a long time due to his inappropriate behavior during massage sessions.

The Panthers tried hard to get Watson, too, which was also morally repugnant. But at least they’ve ended up on the better side of this deal, with the player Watson replaced instead of Watson himself.

I guessed wrongly that the flirtation with Mayfield would never reach the marriage stage for the Panthers, but here we are. By September, a crowded Panthers QB room will likely be winnowed down to Mayfield, Darnold and rookie third-round draft pick Matt Corral, who probably won’t see a regular-season snap this season given the sudden influx of veteran talent. And that’s fine. This was supposed to be a developmental year for Corral anyway. Maybe he starts in 2024 — the Panthers assured Corral Wednesday that he is their “long-term future” at quarterback.

Corral constituted one swing at the QB position, but Carolina needed to take another. No NFL team goes far without solving the QB quadratic equation, and the Panthers haven’t come close since Cam Newton had his last good full year in 2017. That was also the last year the Panthers made the playoffs; they’ve gone 22-43 since. Rhule has never come close to getting it fixed.

This was a good move for Carolina, in the same way it’s smart to order two items on a menu if you can afford it; you’re hungry and you’re not at all sure about the first thing you ordered (in this case, Darnold).

McAdoo ripped Mayfield in 2018

Carolina’s QB situation hasn’t looked right since Newton got hit helmet-first in the throwing shoulder by Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt midway through the 2018 season and it all went south. Since then, the Panthers have started luminaries like Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke, Will Grier, Teddy Bridgewater and P.J. Walker, Darnold and Newton 2.0 (batteries and long throws not included). And while they’ve all had some moments, none of them have won consistently.

Mayfield didn’t win consistently in Cleveland, either, but he won a lot more than Darnold did with the New York Jets and Carolina. His star power isn’t that important, but it won’t hurt for a Carolina franchise that struggles to keep its own fans in their own seats.

Mayfield’s relationship with McAdoo will be worth watching. In 2018, McAdoo told the New York Post he thought Mayfield was the sixth-best QB in the draft. Among his comments were these: “I didn’t see a lot of pro-style football in his college tape. And if you’re short (Mayfield is listed at 6-foot-1), 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 kinda like a pocket quarterback that is short and with small hands, that’s what I worry about.’’

Four years later, McAdoo and Mayfield will try to revitalize their own careers, as well as Rhule’s and the Panthers franchise as a whole. No pressure there, right?

But again, it’s worth trying. The Panthers have said all sorts of nice things about Darnold in the offseason, but they obviously don’t trust him enough to hand him the keys.

Mayfield is coming. And if nothing else, life as a Panther fan just got a lot more fun.