Baker Mayfield vs. Sam Darnold: Is Carolina Panthers' starting QB job Mayfield's to lose?

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Wide receiver Rashard Higgins held tightly to his 11-month-old son in the back of a golf cart while discussing the "open" competition between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold for the Carolina Panthers' starting quarterback job.

He joked that young Sevin got his name -- with a tweak to the spelling -- because seven follows six, the uniform number of Mayfield, his teammate and friend in Cleveland the past four seasons.

In other words, if anyone has reason to pull for Mayfield, it's Higgins.

But when asked who he believes will start Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, the player nicknamed "Hollywood" didn't offer any clarity.

"Whoever makes that decision, it's going to be a good one, so we'll see," he said with a smile.

That's the company line.

Whether it's Mayfield, acquired last month in a trade with the Browns, or Darnold, acquired last year in a trade with the New York Jets, the Panthers believe the competition between the No. 1 and No. 3 overall picks of the 2018 draft will make them better.

Whether you believe the competition is truly "open" or this is Mayfield's job to lose -- as many around the league believe -- doesn't matter, particularly to third-year coach Matt Rhule, whose future might depend on the outcome.

He states almost daily that this isn't a one-day competition and it likely will take time to decide.

"I've been on record with what I think," said Rhule, who opened training camp saying performance will decide the outcome. "I've just got to worry about the guys, and hopefully they feel good about the way we're doing it."

They seem to, and so far, neither has performed well enough to distance himself from the other.

"Everything is extremely transparent," Mayfield said. "They're telling us together how they're handling it. It's not being said to one person and Sam's hearing other things. It's right there in front of us, clear and concise."

The preseason competition plan

You know the routine if you've followed the first week of camp. Darnold works with the first team one day while Mayfield works with the second. The next day, they flip-flop. The next, they split time with the starters. It's about as 50-50 as you can get.

As Rhule explained to his quarterbacks, "We can't necessarily always be fair, but we have to be just."

Fans already have a favorite. Before the first practice, as Mayfield and Darnold walked together to the Wofford College fields, the chants overwhelming were in Mayfield's favor.

Since then, they've arrived separately, but Mayfield still gets more chants, and louder.

For now, neither seems concerned. Each is focused on getting a better grasp of offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system and fixing flaws that have them competing for a job instead of owning one.

Rhule said he likes what he has seen, particularly from Mayfield after only two weeks in the system.

"We test guys every day," he said. "His tests come back in the hundreds. He's a pros pro."

The missing link to becoming a contender?

The last time the Panthers had this kind of an audition was in 2003, when longtime backup Jake Delhomme was brought in to compete with veteran Rodney Peete. Peete started the opener, but Delhomme took over in the second half and led the team to the Super Bowl.

New Panthers guard Austin Corbett understands what it means to solidify the quarterback position, having won a Super Bowl last season with the Los Angeles Rams after they traded for Matthew Stafford. He also knows the potential of Mayfield, since he played with the quarterback in Cleveland his first season and a half as a pro.

Corbett says whoever emerges between Mayfield and Darnold has the potential to make Carolina a contender.

"Their level of competition is going to push each other to the next level of performance," he said.

While not playing favorites, Corbett said the energy Mayfield brings is "truly unmatched."

"A true love of competition that he pours out into everything," he said. "He beats himself up over minor mistakes."

Darnold, Corbett said, is more laid back. He seldom seems upset.

"But they've been jelling together so far, helping each other out and getting along just fine," he said. "They just both want this team to be the most successful it can be."

Red zone success the key to starting?

Winning is what Rhule wants more than anything after going 5-11 and 5-12 his first two seasons. Inconsistent quarterback play (2020 with Teddy Bridgewater and last season with Darnold and Cam Newton) is a big reason he hasn't won.

Much of that inconsistency has been in the red zone, as only 42% of the Panthers' red zone plays have been passes in two seasons under Rhule, which ranks 31st in the NFL. Mayfield seemed to create the first separation in the battle on Monday when he threw three touchdown passes to none for Darnold inside the 20.

Mayfield continued to impress Tuesday with his willingness to take shots downfield, something Darnold hasn't done well as a pro (his 27% completion rate on throws at least 20 yards downfield ranks last in the NFL over the past four seasons; Mayfield ranks 18th at 42%). Mayfield's 50-yard completion to Robbie Anderson drew applause from teammates and fans.

That Mayfield led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff win in 2020 also gives him more credibility. Darnold has gone 6-17 the past two seasons and is 17-32 as the starter overall.

But so far in camp, Rhule has treated both quarterbacks like they are 0-0, and they are helping each other out in meetings and on the field.

"Obviously, we both want to be the starting quarterback for this team," Darnold said. "That's apparent. But at the end of the day, it's not me or Baker making that decision.

"That kind of makes it easier for us to root for each other."