Baker Mayfield vs. Sam Darnold, Day 9: When will Panthers coach Matt Rhule name a starter?

·6 min read
Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/mrodriguez@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule is in no rush to name a starting quarterback.

Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are in an open competition at Panthers training camp, which continued on Saturday in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at Wofford College. Day 9 of camp featured a two-hour scrimmage, where Mayfield and Darnold alternated working with both the first- and second-team offenses.

Through two weeks of camp, Mayfield has outplayed Darnold by generating more explosive plays through the air. His 40-plus yard touchdowns to Robbie Anderson and Rashard Higgins are camp highlights. But Darnold is keeping things close by quickly distributing the ball to tight ends and running backs while occasionally hitting some intermediate throws.

After practice, Rhule said he does not anticipate naming starters at “any position” or forming a depth chart until after the team’s second preseason game at the earliest.

Carolina travels to New England for joint practices with the Patriots on Aug. 16 in advance of their Saturday night (Aug. 19) preseason game.

“The Patriots week is like a true litmus test for us. That’ll really show us where guys are. So we’ll continue to split the reps. And then we’ll make some evaluations off of today’s tape. We’ll make some evaluations after training camp in Wofford ends on Wednesday. And then probably after the game and the Patriots,” Rhule said. “Quarterback to me, as we’ve said all along, it’s when we know, we know, and we’re not going to rush it.”

Carolina is off Sunday then back in Spartanburg on Monday until camp breaks on Wednesday. Fan Fest is Thursday at Bank of America Stadium.

Mayfield and Darnold both had efficient practices on Saturday. The team made practice as game-like as possible by starting drives with a kick-off return and allowing the offense to drive down the field against the defense. The chain gang and referees had a busy morning.

Mayfield and Higgins made the play of practice. During Mayfield’s third series, he connected with “Hollywood” Higgins on a 45-yard touchdown. Higgins altered his path when a Panthers cornerback sat on his route. Rather than occupy covered space, Higgins broke his route deep. Mayfield noticed and let a bomb fly that hit Higgins in stride for a walk-in touchdown.

Higgins extended the ball across the goal line and then debuted his signature red-carpet celebration while teammates celebrated around him. Mayfield ran into the end zone to snap pictures of his former Browns teammate with his imaginary camera.

However, the fun was short-lived. Rhule immediately stopped practice and chewed out his players about a premature celebration. After his 50-second address, He made the offense run a sideline-to-sideline sprint.

“We’re not a team that reaches the ball across the goal line. I told the guys, ‘Hey, after you score a touchdown, celebrate and have fun today.’ I just wanted to make sure they all understood that we won’t win if we don’t protect the football,” Rhule said. “I wanted the defense to understand we can’t give up explosives and offense to understand we don’t celebrate till after the play’s over.”

Mayfield made the play of the practice but was it enough for him to win the day? Let’s dive deeper into their performances.

Baker Mayfield

Stats (unofficial): 15 for 22, TD, INT

The real winners of Saturday’s scrimmage were the Panthers’ offensive line and running backs Christian McCaffrey, D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. Carolina’s offense ran effectively on the defense by utilizing a variety of gap runs and power schemes. All three running backs scored a least one touchdown.

Hubbard scored twice, once on a Mayfield drive and the other with Sam Darnold. On Hubbard’s first score, rookie tackle Ikem Ekwonu made a key led block as Hubbard housed a power outside run off left tackle. Mayfield completed 1-of-2 passes on the touchdown drive. Carolina started near mid-field and scored on the seven-play drive that included five runs and a screen pass.

Mayfield came alive later in practice. On his third drive he completed five straight passes, capped with his deep touchdown to Higgins.

On the previous drive, Mayfield threw an interception to Myles Hartsfield on a deep-in route intended for DJ Moore. The pass may have been slightly behind Moore but it reached both his hands. Hartsfield simply outmuscled Moore, ripping the ball away from him to complete the interception.

Best throw: Mayfield-to-Higgins keeps gaining momentum as the duo is building off their Cleveland chemistry. Ten of Higgins’ 12 career touchdown receptions are from Mayfield. Only tight end David Njoku (11) and Jarvis Landry (14) have caught more Mayfield touchdowns. Any Browns fan could detail the duos’ innate on-field connection. In 2019 during a regular-season game against Buffalo, Higgins caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Mayfield as time expired. It was one of the few snaps — and only target — Higgins earned all game.

Notable mistake: Mayfield threw another interception as detailed above. He’s had more days with a turnover than not.

Sam Darnold

Stats (unofficial): 19 for 28, TD, INT

Darnold opened practice on fire. After Mayfield started with the first team and took seven plays to score, Darnold threw a touchdown on his first throw. From the 25-yard line, Darnold threw a play-action touchdown to fullback Giovanni Ricci. Ricci started near the line of scrimmage, faked an upfield block and took off for the corner pylon.

Darnold dropped a pass right into his outstretched arms for a quick six points. On the next drive, he connected with Higgins twice and slot receiver Shi Smith. The drive ended with a short Zane Gonzalez field goal.

But Darnold threw an unnecessary interception the drive following Mayfield’s turnover. The interception came while Darnold was rolling right to escape pressure and extended the play. Darnold tried squeezing a sideline throw to undrafted free agent Ra’Shaun Henry, but newly signed cornerback Tay Hayes stepped in front of the pass and picked it off.

Best throw: Darnold started practice with a touchdown dime throw to Ricci but did not build off that momentum.

Notable mistake: Darnold threw another avoidable interception. It was his most egregious turnover of camp yet.

Who won the day?

Mayfield won the practice but once again it was close. Eventually, either Mayfield or Darnold could create serious separation by stringing together a couple of turnover-free practices.

“The disappointing thing is that we had two interceptions. Each guy had an interception. We’ve got to protect the football,” Rhule said. “But I did see some good things. Both guys had explosive plays. So we’ll really dig into the tape and see who’s truly mastering the offense and who’s not. There’s a lot of work to be done on the next few days by us coaches.”

Total wins this preseason

Baker Mayfield 4

Sam Darnold 3

P.J. Walker/Matt Corral 1