Can the Carolina Panthers make the most out of Baker Mayfield?

·9 min read

After months of back-and-forth, the Cleveland Browns have finally granted quarterback Baker Mayfield sweet release from the franchise that selected him first overall in the 2018 draft, watched him develop into a near-top-tier quarterback in 2020, and then, saw it all collapse as Mayfield struggled last season through injuries, personnel attrition, and coaching inflexibility. The wisdom of the Browns’ trade for Deshaun Watson will be debated ad nauseam for all kinds of reasons, but now, Mayfield is out of that particular Dysfunction Junction.

On Wednesday, the Browns made a deal with the Carolina Panthers that sent Mayfield there in exchange for a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick. That could rise to a fourth-round pick based on Mayfield’s playing time. Why such a low return for the Browns? Well, the Panthers will take on $10.5 million of Mayfield’s $18,858 million salary in 2022, the Panthers will pay Mayfield $5 million, and Mayfield has agreed to eat the rest.

If you ever wondered how much Mayfield wanted out, there’s your answer. It’s an absolutely abysmal deal for the Browns no matter how you slice it. The probability of Watson suiting up in Week 1 (when the Browns host… the Panthers) is somewhere between slim and none, and slim just left town. That of course is due to the upcoming suspension Watson faces for multiple accusations of sexual assault. Cleveland will most likely start backup Jacoby Brissett in Watson’s stead for however Watson is suspended — not the worst possible outcome, but certainly suboptimal for a team that was thought not too long ago to have Super Bowl aspirations. And the Browns have nobody to blame but themselves.

That aside, how can Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo bring out the best in Mayfield — to make this trade the thunderous franchise win it should be? I have already written about how Mayfield’s talents can be optimized in a vacuum; I’m far less sure about this particular fit — and whether this is the right offense.

(All advanced metrics courtesy of Sports Info Solutions and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise indicated).

Mayfield might be swimming upstream with Ben McAdoo.

Jun 8, 2022; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule talks with offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo during Carolina Panthers minicamp at Bank of America Stadium Practice Facility. (Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, who will never be mistaken for Bill Walsh, had this to say about Mayfield in 2018, before Mayfield was drafted, and when McAdoo was between gigs after being fired as the Giants’ head coach.

“He’s got an edge to him, I like that,” McAdoo said in a New York Post article in which ranked Mayfield sixth among draftable quarterback prospects. “He’s gonna lead, they’re gonna follow him. I didn’t see a lot of pro-style football in his college tape. 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 kinda like a pocket quarterback that is short and with small hands, that’s what I worry about.’’

In that same article, McAdoo listed then-Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen as his seventh prospect. Allen was an unfinished player in college, but still… Whoops.

In any event, McAdoo’s analysis can be considered specious at best, and bizarre at worst. Mayfield has never been a pocket quarterback per se, and his athleticism is actually one of his more positive attributes. Even in his injury-plagued 2021 season, Mayfield was pretty explosive outside the pocket, completing 26 of 61 passes for 319 yards, 218 air yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions. In 2020, when healthy and on the rise as a quarterback, Mayfield completed 70 of 126 passes outside the pocket for 970 yards, 666 air yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions.

So, maybe McAdoo will have to update his priors.

On this touchdown against the Colts in Week 5 of the 2020 season, Mayfield rolls to his right as he doesn’t see what he wants, and then hits running back Kareem Hunt for a two-yard touchdown as two defenders converge. This is an outstanding timing throw in random circumstances — which every NFL quarterback has to learn to deal with.

How the Panthers' tendencies align with what Mayfield does best.

(AP Photo/David Richard)

As previously detailed, Mayfield has been better in the NFL with the benefits of play-action, pre-snap motion, and 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one running back). The Browns, led by head coach Kevin Stefanski, were usually rowing in other directions.

How do the Panthers line up with these tendencies? Ostensibly, Rhule and McAdoo were doing what was best for quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Cam Newton, and P.J. Walker, so not everything is permanent.

But in 2021, Carolina ranked 21st in dropbacks with play-action, and their quarterbacks completed 93 of 149 attempts for 926 yards, 393 air yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions, a passer rating of 78.6, an EPA of -19.53, and a Positive Play Rate of 46.2%.

The Panthers finished ninth in the NFL with 298 dropbacks using pre-snap motion, and their quarterbacks completed 156 of 269 passes for 1,298 yards, 635 air yards, nine touchdowns, 12 interceptions, a passer rating of 65.0, an EPA of -81.53 (ouch), and a Positive Play Rate of 35.5% — only the Giants were worse in that category.

As far as 11 personnel? The Panthers also finished ninth in this category with 515 dropbacks, and their quarterbacks completed 256 of 447 passes for 2,226 yards, 1211 air yards, nine touchdowns, 19 interceptions, a passer rating of 62.4, a a league-worst EPA of -148.72, and a Positive Play Rate of 37.7% — again, only the Giants were worse.

This tells you a couple of things. One, there’s not a lot to go on here regarding comparative performance, as Carolina may have had the NFL’s  worst quarterback situation in 2021. Two, you can see why the Panthers were so eager to make this deal, and at least get their heads above water at the game’s most important position.

Under pressure...

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

One thing Mayfield did have going for him in Cleveland was an outstanding offensive line. He will not have the same advantage with his new team, at least in the near term. In 2021, the Panthers allowed the NFL’s fourth-most pressures with 213 — only the Dolphins, Bengals, and Raiders were worse. The Browns allowed the NFL’s second-fewest pressures with 141, behind only the Patriots. Sadly for the Panthers, this has been by design, as the Rhule era has proven to be less than optimal when it comes to offensive line evaluation.

Right tackle Taylor Moton, by far that line’s best player, was a second-round pick in 2017, pre-dating Rhule’s arrival. And while 2022 sixth-overall pick Ikem Ekwonu projects well as an instant power upgrade at left tackle, he’ll have to put in the work as a polished pass-protector before he’s able to deal with the NFL’s best edge-rushers.

How was Mayfield under pressure in 2021? Not terrible, and certainly a lot better than Darnold was — Darnold completed 61 of 132 passes under pressure for 768 yards, two touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a passer rating of 47.8. Mayfield completed 38 of 91 passes for 592 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 61.2.

If we go back to the 2020 version of Mayfield — again, the one whose shoulders weren’t hanging by a string — he completed 113 of 155 passes under pressure for 525 yards, two touchdowns, five interceptions, and a passer rating of 45.0. Pressured more often, Mayfield did what most quarterbacks do when that happens — he regressed.

Not a great sign for where he’s headed.

Well, at least he's got good targets... maybe?

(Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

Before we get to Carolina’s receivers, we have to discuss running back Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers are in a somewhat unique situation in that a back is the fulcrum of their offense, and when McCaffrey is hurt, things tend to go south pretty quickly. McCaffrey missed 13 games in 2020 and nine in 2021 due to injury. When he was off the field, things went very deeply south in a big hurry.

The Panthers had an Offensive EPA of 0.02 with McCaffrey, and -0.22 without. Their Passing EPA fell from 0.04 to -0.28. Their completion percentage dropped from 66.9 to 54.5. their yards per attempt went from 7.4 to 5.6, their passing touchdown rate went from 3.0 to 1.9, and their interception rate rose from 3.0 to 3.8.

How are things looking at this point?

Welp. Beyond that, there are some decent guys for Mayfield to hit downfield. D.J. Moore caught 93 passes on 163 targets for 1,157 yards and four touchdowns in that Factory of Quarterback Sadness, and Robby Anderson is a very good No. 2 and vertical target. There are things to like about third receiver Rashad Higgins (who played with Mayfield in Cleveland), second-year man Terrace Marshall Jr, and tight end Tommy Tremble. In this category, especially if McCaffrey can stay on the field, Mayfield might be shooting par or below when comparing what he had for receivers in 2021.

This had better work... for everybody involved.

(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Everybody is on the hook in this deal. For Rhule and McAdoo, Mayfield may provide them with enough juice to keep their jobs. Rhule is heading into his third season with the Panthers, and that current 10-23 record doesn’t hold much hope.

For Mayfield, it’s a redemptive opportunity. He’s in the last year of his rookie contract not long after he was seen as the next quarterback to get a mammoth deal. Now, he’s playing for his future, and the perception that he’s still worth that kind of scratch… or not.

It’s now up to all parties involved to work together, and come up with the best possible game plans. Status quo will not work. How far they can rise above it remains to be seen.

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