CHARLOTTE, N.C. – At some point soon after next week’s mandatory minicamp, the Carolina Panthers will decide if they are comfortable having Sam Darnold compete with rookie Matt Corral and former XFL star P.J. Walker for the starting quarterback job -- or if they need to trade for a another veteran, such as Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo.
ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky said he “loves” Darnold. He still believes the third pick of the 2018 draft “can be one of the best quarterbacks in the league," despite a 17-32 record as a starter.
So when Orlovsky says the Panthers would be a great spot for Mayfield, the disgruntled Cleveland Browns quarterback, it’s not out of disrespect for Darnold. It’s out of respect for what he thinks Mayfield could do for Carolina.
“They have a chance to be really good with solid quarterback play," Orlovsky said.
Orlovsky likes the way general manager Scott Fitterer strengthened the roster after the Panthers' failed attempt to acquire Deshaun Watson, who made Mayfield expendable when he joined the Browns.
Darnold and Mayfield are in prove-it mode as they enter the final year of their rookie deals. Combine that with four years of NFL experience, and they have a better chance of pushing each other to improve, which makes them better options than third-round rookie Corral.
The biggest advantage Mayfield has over Corral and Darnold is 29 wins in 59 starts. One could make the same argument for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Garoppolo, who is 33-14 as a starter.
But Garoppolo’s 2022 cap figure ($26.95 million) makes him less attractive to the Panthers when added to Darnold’s guaranteed salary ($18.8 million). There also are some in the organization who question whether Garoppolo is much of an upgrade, though the same goes for Mayfield.
All we know for sure is the Panthers are keeping their options open in terms of adding a veteran quarterback, such as Mayfield, the first pick of the 2018 draft.
And so far, they feel comfortable with Darnold, who, on Wednesday, had what coach Matt Rhule called his best practice since joining the Panthers last offseason.
“I thought Sam was outstanding," Rhule said. “He has taken a very much stoic approach of, ‘Hey, I’m going to control what I can control.’ He can’t control the decisions we make as an organization. By taking that approach, we’ve seen Sam get better and better."
Rhule also said Darnold ultimately has to prove his worth in games. That’s why it’s important to decide now if the team is comfortable that can happen or if another veteran is needed.
For a Mayfield deal to happen, the Panthers would need the Browns to pay most of his 2022 salary ($18.8 million), and the the Panthers likely would have to send a draft pick to Cleveland. That’s where talks were during the draft, when the Browns, according to a league source, were willing to pay only $3.5 million of Mayfield's salary.
The other option would be if Cleveland released Mayfield, but there isn’t any indication at the moment that will happen. If he were released, Mayfield would have control of where he goes, and other teams might be more attractive.
After next week’s minicamps, Rhule will meet with Fitterer to discuss whether adding a veteran makes sense from a financial and competition standpoint.
Where there is certainty, particularly for Orlovsky, is that Mayfield would be a better option in 2022 than Corral.
That makes sense, based on what new Carolina offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo recently said about how much the rookie has to learn before training camp begins in July to even be in a position to compete for a role.
Not necessarily a starting role, but a role.
It starts with communication and understanding the pro system versus the spread, up-tempo offense Corral ran at Ole Miss.
“Really, it’s like he’s trying to learn a different language he hasn’t spoken before," McAdoo said. “There’s verbal and visual cues he has to know and learn. It’s going to take some time."
While Darnold would be McAdoo’s starter if the season started today, the quarterback also has a lot to learn in a completely new system.
“In my mind, nobody is out there ready to fight for a job, fight for a role," McAdoo said.
McAdoo is not even willing to commit to what his offense will look like, other than it won’t be anything like the past two years under OC Joe Brady. And it might not look like what McAdoo ran in four seasons with the New York Giants as a coordinator (2014-15) and head coach (2016-17) with two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning under center.
That was a quarterback-friendly system based around a power running game.
“The offense is going to look far different than probably [what I was] involved with in the past," McAdoo said. “That’s because our players are different. We’re going to do our best job to tailor it to the players we have."
This isn’t an ideal situation heading into minicamp from Tuesday to Thursday for Carolina, which has had seven different quarterbacks start at least one game since 2018.
That’s why the Panthers are keeping options -- including a possible return by Cam Newton -- open while trying to solidify the position. And that’s why McAdoo wasn’t ready to say whether Corral could be ready to challenge Darnold if he enters the season with them as his top two choices.
“So right now, we’ll just let things play out," McAdoo said. “We’ll teach, we’ll learn, we’ll communicate and see how the chips fall."