Sam Darnold’s status as the starter and the Panthers’ biggest questions after minicamp

Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/

Minicamp for the Carolina Panthers ended on Thursday following an incomplete pass from quarterback Matt Corral as he tried to extend an end-of-game situation session.

Carolina needed to go 40 yards with 40 seconds left. The rookie’s unit failed to pick up a first down just as Sam Darnold’s group did not move the chains in a similar situation four plays earlier. The Panthers’ defense suffocated the offense’s two-minute drive, making up for an offensive flurry earlier in practice during a red-zone segment.

In all, Darnold and Corral each had their ups and downs over the Panthers’ three-day minicamp, which started on Tuesday and ended with a Thursday practice on the game field at Bank of America Stadium. It was also family day on Mint Street as families of players, coaches and team officials scurried around Bank of America Stadium enjoying bounce houses and even dropping in on coach Matt Rhule’s press conference.

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A focused but joyful mood filled BOA, matching a tone set by Rhule, his staff and players after a challenging nine-week offseason program (the first of Rhule’s tenure unaffected by COVID-19 protocols) concluded.

“I express gratitude,” Rhule said of his post-practice message. “We’ve had elite attendance for nine weeks. We don’t exert any pressure (to participate). I think our guys wanted to be here. So I thank them for their work. And told them to be ready for Wofford.”

The team will break for five weeks before shifting its attention to training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Rhule stressed the importance of Panthers players arriving at camp in excellent shape. The team does not want to rely on an acclimation period to start camp. Instead, Rhule said the plan is to “hit the ground running” and pick up where their minicamp progress left off.

As the Panthers break for five weeks before training camp, here are the biggest questions looming over the team.


Will Sam Darnold remain QB 1?

About an hour into practice, Darnold took a snap and immediately spiked the ball into the turf with frustration. A couple of offensive linemen committed a false start, which crippled the offense’s two-minute drive.

The California-cool quarterback and his offense were having a sharp practice until then. But Darnold, an incumbent quarterback based on situation rather than performance, knows any rep could be his last as the Panthers’ No. 1 quarterback. He has a rookie with a lightning-fast release behind him and the team remains interested in bringing in a veteran quarterback.

“If we played today, Sam would be our quarterback,” Rhule said. “Sam’s job is to take the next five weeks to make sure he shows up in Wofford better than he is right now. He said to me yesterday how good he feels footwork-wise in the offense. He’s got to improve when he gets to training camp, and he has to do it with the pads on when people are trying to knock you down.”


Darnold is grasping new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s offense while fighting off exterior distractions about Carolina potentially bringing in a veteran quarterback. The team has been linked to Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo. Those talks have stalled, again as both sides remain “not close,” according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.

Neither team is in a rush. Expect trade talks to continue for both quarterbacks as training camp nears.

Darnold already has in-house competition to worry about. Corral saw his practice reps increase each day of camp. On Thursday, the rookie completed 10 of 15 passes during competitive team drills, including four touchdown passes to four different targets.

“I feel good. I know this process is just beginning. And I know it’s gonna ramp up a little bit during training camp,” Corral said after practice. “Right now, I just don’t take a day off mentally from the playbook.”


Since rookie minicamp Corral has been burying himself within McAdoo’s complex playbook. The rookie said he feels physically ready to play but is not there mentally. When asked when he thinks he will be ready, he said that is up to McAdoo.

The team won’t acknowledge it but Darnold and Corral are in a cold competition, rather than a sheer quarterback battle, evident by Darnold out-repping Corral nearly two to one. Perhaps unintentionally, the two quarterbacks exchanged touchdown passes early in Thursday’s practice. After Corral threw an early score to tight end Stephen Sullivan, Darnold responded with two red-zone scores of his own. Then Corral answered back with back-to-back touchdown balls, including a corner end-zone dime to undrafted free agent Ra’Shaun Henry.

But Darnold had the better day, completing 21 of 26 throws and six touchdowns.

The Panthers’ offense shined inside the 20-yard line before the defense made things difficult later in two-minute drills. But if Thursday’s practice marked Darnold’s final outing as the Panthers’ unquestioned No. 1 QB then he impressed. Everyone was watching, including general manager Scott Fitterer.


Who will enter training camp as starting left tackle?

Rookie offensive lineman Ikem Ekwonu is trying to solidify himself as the team’s starting left tackle but made an entertaining case for some tight-end reps on Thursday. Near the end of practice, Ekwonu reported as eligible on the line of scrimmage before a delayed release up the left sideline. Darnold hit him near the front pylon and the rookie scored his first unofficial touchdown at Bank of America Stadium.

“Yeah, I was just doin’ my job,” Ekwonu said. “Had to reach a little bit. Reach by the guy, kinda make him think I was just blocking him. Then last second, kinda release for a route. I knew Sam was gonna put it on the money, so I just had to catch it and I’m glad I was able to do my job.”

At 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, Ekwonu is built to play left tackle. But the team also features second-year offensive lineman Brady Christensen, who started three games at left tackle last season and has been repping as a blind-side protector during minicamp. Luckily for the Panthers, he’s versatile. The 2021 third-round pick also took snaps at left guard. Rhule said the team considered trying him at center but decided letting him focus on two positions was best for his development.


(Coach James) Campen has done a good job of mixing that up,” Rhule said of left tackle reps. We try not to get too caught up like, ‘Hey, you’re the one and you’re a two.’ I just know that Brady is one of our better players on the team, not just on the offensive lineman on the team. So we’ll find the right spot for him.”

Assuming everyone stays healthy early in camp, the Panthers have options across their offensive line. Ekwonu and Christensen should hold down the left side. There will be a competition at center between Pat Elflein and Bradly Bozeman. Austin Corbett will start at right guard and Taylor Moton at right tackle.

The team remains high on Michael Jordan, Deonte Brown, Cam Erving and Dennis Daley but none have starting expectations, unlike last year.

Is the roster set?

Expect Carolina to make some additions to the roster before training camp. That could be at quarterback or defensive line.


Free-agent defensive end Carlos Dunlap spent Monday and Tuesday visiting the Panthers. After undergoing physicals on Monday, Dunlap met with coaches on Tuesday and flew back to Florida that evening, according to reports. Talks are expected to continue between both parties but nothing is imminent.

He remains a name to watch.

“Defensive lineman at that position is something that we’re always looking for guys. We have all kinds of exploratory talks with guys,” Rhule said Thursday. “I can’t say that anything is imminent. But we know we’re always looking for guys who can obviously win on the line of scrimmage and affect the quarterback.”

Rhule said the team recently talked to an unnamed player about coming in for training camp as well, proof that Carolina is always looking to improve the margins of its roster.

“We’re always looking for the line depth,” Rhule said. Or we’re looking for that defensive end that can also play inside on third down. Those are the kind of main positions where we would look for somebody.”