Baker Mayfield has to prove he's better than Sam Darnold to start for Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After months of on-again, off-again negotiations, quarterback Baker Mayfield is now a member of the Carolina Panthers after they sent the Cleveland Browns a 2024 conditional draft pick for him in Wednesday's trade.

But does adding Mayfield make the Panthers a playoff team in 2022?

If they get the 2020 version of Mayfield, maybe. He led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff victory while throwing 26 touchdown passes to eight interceptions.

The 2021 version of Mayfield -- the one who struggled to a 6-8 record with 17 touchdown passes to 13 interceptions while dealing with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder -- might not be any better than returning starter Sam Darnold.

And, the Panthers haven’t counted Darnold out. According to a league source, Mayfield hasn’t been handed over the keys to the offense. He’s just been given a duplicate set to compete with Darnold for the job.

The Panthers have been open about the possibility of adding a veteran quarterback to compete with Darnold since Deshaun Watson was traded to the Browns, which made Mayfield expendable.

They made a run at Mayfield during the draft, but, according to a league source, the Browns weren’t willing to pay more than $3.5 million of Mayfield’s $18.858 million 2022 salary in an exchange for a sixth-round pick.

That changed Wednesday. The Panthers gave up a conditional fifth-round pick in 2024 that could turn into a fourth-rounder based on playing time -- Mayfield would have to play about 70 percent of the offensive snaps, per league source -- and will pay only $4.85 million plus incentives of Mayfield’s salary. The Browns will pay $10.5 million.

That Mayfield was willing to eat $3.5 million of his salary helped get the deal completed for both sides, according to a league source.

That’s a team-friendly deal for the Panthers, who, with the $18.858 million guaranteed to Darnold this season, have $23.7 million committed to the first (Mayfield) and third (Darnold) picks of the 2018 draft.

On paper, it looks good.

But does that make them a playoff team?

According to Caesars Sportsbook, it gives them a shot. Their odds of winning the Super Bowl jumped from 124-1 to 100-1 after the trade. They went from 60-1 to 50-1 to win the NFC and 12-1 to 11-1 to win the NFC South.

That might not be a huge bump, but for Carolina, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017 and has three straight five-win seasons, any bump is progress.

Panthers offensive lineman Austin Corbett, who played with Mayfield in Cleveland in 2018 and 2019, told SiriusXM NFL Radio the trade was “pretty exciting.’’

“Baker’s a special character for that energy,’’ said Corbett, part of a restructured offensive line. “Everything he does; he’s all about winning. He wants to win in every aspect of life.

“To get him into a room and just feel that competition with all those other guys, it’s definitely going to just raise the level of performance as a team overall. It’s a great pickup.’’

Wide receiver Robbie Anderson didn’t sound excited during the draft when it was reported the Panthers were interested in Mayfield. He responded to a tweet with “Nooooo.’’

He later explained he was standing up for Darnold, his teammate for two years with the New York Jets before they were reunited with the Panthers last season.

“Just trying to defend the guy who is my quarterback,’’ Anderson said during a June minicamp.

In other words, Mayfield will have to prove himself to Anderson.

Mayfield also will have to prove himself to first-year Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, who, in a 2018 New York Post story, rated Mayfield sixth among the top quarterbacks in the draft.

“I didn’t see a lot of pro-style football in his college tape,” McAdoo said at the time. “And if you’re short [6-foot-1,] you have to be able to make up for it some way, somehow, and personality doesn’t do that.

“[Mayfield] is kinda like a pocket quarterback that is short and with small hands, that’s what I worry about.’’

So Mayfield isn’t a slam dunk to be the starter when the Panthers open the season at home against the Browns. And the Panthers aren’t a slam dunk to make the playoffs, although general manager Scott Fitterer did a solid job of upgrading the rest of the roster after losing out on Watson.

The Panthers also have running back Christian McCaffrey, who has missed 23 of the past 33 games with injuries, back to full speed. A healthy McCaffrey makes any quarterback look better. Darnold was 3-0 before McCaffrey got hurt last season.

But at least Mayfield creates competition for Darnold that third-round pick Matt Corral likely couldn’t, and his presence creates optimism for a franchise that hasn’t had much since Cam Newton’s career went south in 2018 due to injuries.

The team believes competition will make Darnold better, a league source said, and isn't worried this could backfire. The source added there is no plan to trade Darnold.

If it works out and 27-year-old Mayfield is successful, Carolina could have the long-term solution at quarterback it has been looking for since coach Matt Rhule took over the team in 2020.

If it doesn’t, Carolina will be back in the quarterback market – and possibly head-coaching market -- in 2023.