Panthers trade for Baker Mayfield doesn’t change their long-term QB plan. He’s already here

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·6 min read
Jeff Siner/jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
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Carolina Panthers trade for Baker Mayfield

Panthers training camp is going from warm and predictable to hot and wild.

By trading with the Cleveland Browns for quarterback Baker Mayfield on Thursday, Carolina instantly adds competition to its quarterback room of Sam Darnold, PJ Walker, rookie Matt Corral and the undrafted rookie Davis Cheek. In exchange for Mayfield, the Panthers agreed to trade a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick; that pick becomes a fourth-round selection if he plays around 70% of offensive snaps this season.

Mayfield and Darnold — who were the Nos. 1 and 3 picks in the 2018 draft — will enter training camp with an open competition at quarterback, according to a league source. With Darnold and Mayfield battling for first-team reps, expectations for Corral should be lowered while Walker and Cheeks are both likely training camp cuts. (Unless the Panthers decide to carry four quarterbacks, which would help Walker.) Cheeks will garner practice squad interest.

The team has no plans to cut Darnold, who is guaranteed $18.98 million this season, and has not explored trading him, according to a league source.

Carolina drafted Corral out of Ole Miss with plans to develop him slowly, and bringing in Mayfield decreases his chances of seeing the field this season. If Mayfield beats out Darnold in training camp, then Darnold becomes the league’s highest-paid backup while Corral would likely be the third quarterback.

The Panthers did call Corral to inform him of the trade and ensured him that he is still their future of the position, according to a league source.

For Corral, he’ll have a year to learn under Darnold and Mayfield. Considering the team traded a 2023 third-round pick to move up and draft him in the third round back in April, the Panthers are still excited about his future at the position. And despite making positive strides during OTAs, new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is installing a complex system, one the rookie admitted is challenging to learn.

Adding Mayfield eliminates almost any possibility of Corral starting because of injury early this season. The goal is to let Corral learn the offense — similar to how Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes sat behind proven starters — until he is fully ready to start.

Since both Darnold and Mayfield are playing on expiring contracts, the team can evaluate both at year’s end and make a comfortable decision knowing Corral is still available for the long term.

From Mayfield’s perspective, he isn’t coming to Carolina to lose a quarterback competition or serve as a mentor. He’s here to revamp his career, remake his league-wide image and eventually land a long-term contract with the Panthers or elsewhere. Mayfield-to-Carolina happened because it’s the best short-term move for all three parties, with the potential to be a multi-year solution for all.

For several weeks, the Panthers and Browns had the parameters of a trade set but neither side could agree on how much of Mayfield’s $18.9 million each would pay. Once Mayfield agreed to trim $3.5 million off his deal, the Browns were comfortable paying $10.5 million while Carolina picked up the remaining $4.858 million. Mayfield can recoup the missing $3.5 million via on-field incentives based on playing time percentage and performance.

The Panthers parted with a conditional fifth-round pick (which can become a fourth-round pick), a low price for a quarterback who is only a year removed from posting career bests in interceptions (8), QBR (65.5), and yards per attempt (7.7). A closer look reveals he was one of the best quarterbacks in the league over his last six games of the 2020 season. Mayfield threw for 1,713 yards, 11 touchdowns, one interception and a 103.4 rating. The Browns went 4-2 before beating the Steelers on wild-card weekend, giving Cleveland its first postseason victory since 1994.

A year ago at this time, Mayfield was on the cusp of many top 10 quarterback lists. Always polarizing, the former Heisman winner set out to prove he was the Browns’ long-term solution as Mayfield and the Browns worked towards a contract extension. But in Week 2, Mayfield tore his left labrum while trying to tackle a Houston Texans player after an interception.

Mayfield played through the pain but did not perform anywhere near his 2020 self. His 13 interceptions were tied for fourth-most. He posted a 35.1 QBR, fifth-lowest among starting quarterbacks and led the Browns to an underwhelming 8-9 record.

Cleveland entered the season with Super Bowl expectations and fell drastically short. Throughout the season there was a disconnect between Mayfield and head coach Kevin Stefanski. While the Browns were losing games, Mayfield was unhappy with the playcalling and thought the team was not playing to his strengths. He also did not like the messaging surrounding his in-season injuries, which in addition to his torn left labrum included a bruised heel and knee and groin injuries.

Once Cleveland openly courted Deshaun Watson (along with Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans), Mayfield requested a trade. When Watson (who is still awaiting disciple from the league office regarding his pending civil lawsuits) chose to waive his no-trade clause to join the Browns, it was a matter of when Cleveland would trade Mayfield, not if.

Enter Carolina. Head coach Matt Rhule is coming off consecutive five-win seasons and must win-now to keep his job. Owner David Tepper, burned by two big offseason quarterback moves (Teddy Bridgewater in 2020 and Darnold last season) is hoping the third time will reverse his fortunes. And Mayfield — desperate for a new locker room — landed in the only place where he’d be offered an opportunity to compete for a starting job.

Compete is exactly what Mayfield is expected to do in Carolina, and it’s what he’s done his entire career. As a Texas Tech walk-on freshman, he won the starting job in 2013 but when Kliff Kingsbury didn’t put him on scholarship after, he transferred to Oklahoma. There, he beat out Trevor Knight for the starting job and won the Heisman Trophy before becoming the top draft pick.

He won’t be handed the No. 1 spot. Mayfield is already behind incumbent quarterbacks Darnold, Corral, Walker and Cheeks in the playbook after minicamp last month. Besides newcomer Rashard Higgins, who Mayfield played four seasons with, he’ll be throwing to all new targets.

But Mayfield is used to adversity-riddled roads, lined with doubters and naysayers. Cleveland drafted Mayfield No. 1 overall after going 0-16. By Year 3, the Browns were 11-5, made the playoffs for the first since 2002 and won their first playoff game since 1994. To thank his former quarterback for those accomplishments and more, Browns Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager Andrew Berry released a statement Wednesday afternoon addressing Mayfield.

“Baker Mayfield infused our organization with tenacity and grit during his time as our starting quarterback,” Berry said in a statement. “Baker’s competitiveness, toughness and ability to persevere were all characteristics that endeared him to our city as well as his teammates. He will always have a unique place in Browns history for what he accomplished and we wish him well as he continues his career.”

Berry was a part of the front office that drafted Mayfield. He knows better than anyone what Mayfield brings to an organization. The Panthers’ newest quarterback wields natural tenacity, grit, competitiveness and toughness.

Most importantly, he perseveres.

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