PJ Walker to stay Panthers' starting QB at Falcons on Sunday

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- PJ Walker will remain the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers when they play the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium even if Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are cleared to return from ankle injuries.

Interim coach Steve Wilks made the announcement Monday, less than 24 hours after the former XFL star -- who was fourth on the quarterback depth chart entering training camp -- led Carolina to a 21-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to move the Panthers within one game of first place in the NFC South.

The Panthers, despite losing 12 of their past 14 games going back to last season, are 2-5. Atlanta and Tampa Bay are 3-4.

"As of right now, I see no reason not to [start him],'' said Wilks, 1-1 as the coach since Matt Rhule was fired. "The energy was there.''

Walker, 27, was an afterthought entering training camp. He barely got reps as Mayfield and Darnold, the first and third picks of the 2018 NFL draft, respectively, battled in what was called an open competition for the starting job.

The plan was to build the roster with Mayfield as the starter ahead of Darnold and third-round pick Matt Corral, a developmental player. Walker at best was going to be on the practice squad.

But Corral suffered a season-ending foot injury in the second preseason game against the New England Patriots and Darnold was placed on injured reserve after suffering a high ankle sprain in the third preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.

That elevated Walker to the backup spot behind Mayfield -- until Mayfield suffered a high ankle sprain in the fifth game against the San Francisco 49ers. That reminded Walker of conversations he had with DJ Moore in camp when the wide receiver repeatedly told him, "You are going to be here.''

"It is crazy because you know me being the person I was during camp, frustrated a little bit, and not showing my emotions, just going out there and trying to battle every day,'' Walker said. "You know me and him had a lot of talks of him just saying, 'You are going to be here. Don't worry about it.'

"God's plan. It happens.''

Walker made it happen after a disastrous start against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6. He completed 10 of 16 passes for only 60 yards for a 5.6 Total QBR in that game. He was in large part a victim of a game plan that didn't allow him to throw downfield. He averaged 0.4 air yards on his attempts and minus-2.5 yards on his completions.

He opened Sunday's game with a deep pass that wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. dropped to negate a 38-yard pickup. He averaged 9.3 yards per attempt and 6.7 yards per completion in the first half.

For Walker, it was a statement.

"Just that I can be trusted with the football in my hand,'' he said. "Make the right decisions at the right time. You know, even late in the game, we had an opportunity to throw the ball and I made the right decision. For me, it is to just go out there and execute what we call, whether it is bubble screens or down the field.''

Walker finished with a Total QBR of 73.9, completing 16 of 22 pass attempts for 177 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. To put that in perspective, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL with a 76.8 QBR.

Mayfield's QBR over his past four starts is 12.3 and his season QBR is 15.3, ranking 32nd in the NFL.

That's among the reasons Wilks, a strong believer in staying with the hot hand, will stay with Walker against Atlanta even though Mayfield and Darnold are trending toward being available.

That means a lot to Walker, who said on Sunday he was ready to go back to work on Monday whether he was the starter or the backup against Atlanta.

"I am not going to sit here and dwell on this and be happy about this one win,'' Walker said. "I just want to continue to grow as a player, continue to get better and help this team get better. We've got a really good group that can do a lot of things out there.''