After two weeks in Spartanburg, the Panthers flew to Washington for their first preseason game against the newly branded Commanders on Saturday. Both Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold got first-half snaps in Carolina’s 23-21 win. The Panthers’ starting defense looked stout, forcing a three-and-out and a fumble in the first quarter.
Mayfield then led Carolina on a 13-play drive to start the game off with a field goal. Darnold stepped in after that, leading a 3-play TD drive from the Commanders’ 19, taking advantage of an Antonio Gibson fumble. Carolina ended the half with a 10-6 lead after a solid performance from some prospective starters. Here are four things that fans should take away from Panthers’ training camp and preseason week 1.
The job is Baker’s to lose, but it isn’t over
Mayfield was the first Panthers QB to touch turf on Saturday, leading a scoring drive where he went 4/7 for 45 yards. Mayfield and Sam Darnold are listed as co-starters on the Panthers’ unofficial depth chart, but Baker’s preseason start suggests he has a slight edge. After a strong training camp from the new signal-caller, head coach Matt Rhule said he’s been impressed by how quick Mayfield has grasped the offense.
“But I couldn’t be more pleased with Baker—how much he’s learned of what we’ve done,” Rhule said. “But there’s way more to put in to kinda get through that phase.”
Rhule emphasized that Mayfield has taken to the offense well and has been highly motivated to create a rapport with his new receivers. Rhule also made it clear that the job is far from won, yet it seems Mayfield has an inherent advantage due to his leadership ability.
Darnold’s chances to start have slipped to around 35% because he hasn’t matured with respect to reading defenses and taking care of the football. He won’t suddenly sprout a sense of fire and intensity, so Darnold must show tactical progress or else Mayfield will be starting against his old team in week 1.
The secondary continues to show out
Jeremy Chinn and Cory Littleton combined to force a fumble on Antonio Gibson in Washington’s second offensive possession. Darnold flipped that turnover into a touchdown to Rashard Higgins just three plays later. Here’s a closer look at the explosive tackle off the end from Chinn, followed by Littleton’s perfect punch-out.
Antonio Gibson fumble issues return. Ball carried too far away from his body as he's going to ground, allows defender to punch it out. Brian Robinson gonna have chances to take reps if this continues this year pic.twitter.com/Cu1NRmwbwk
— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) August 13, 2022
This is the type of defense DC Phil Snow wants to have in 2022: An aggressive front seven in front of a speedy secondary. Carolina has a lot of young talent on defense, and they added some key veterans this season. Xavier Woods and Damien Wilson will be upgrades in the middle of the field, so Carolina’s strongest unit is now undoubtedly the secondary.
New free safety Xavier Woods broke up a pass on Saturday, C.J. Henderson has been a racket in camp and Jaycee Horn is right where he left off last season. This group has top-five turnover potential and is looking to put the league on notice.
Ikem Ekwonu has to earn the starting job
Despite the Panthers’ offensive line troubles over the past several seasons, Matt Rhule won’t name Ikem Ekwonu the starting left tackle. Questions about the No. 6 overall pick have surfaced in camp, mostly regarding his quickness and fundamentals. Those weaknesses were exposed more publicly on Saturday.
Even on Darnold’s touchdown pass you can see that Ekwonu has trouble sealing the edge on the play-action, and the defender could have leveled Darnold after this throw.
Sam Darnold to Rashard Higgins TDpic.twitter.com/bY9W9n2BFe
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) August 13, 2022
Thankfully, the Commanders showed great sportsmanship by not hitting the QB after their release several times. Ekwonu is listed in the second team behind Brady Christensen on the Panthers’ unofficial depth chart. The rookie and Carolina native will have to prove he’s NFL-ready if he’s to start at left tackle to begin the season. It’s clear that his draft position means squat to these coaches, which is a healthy mindset for a young team. Expect Ekwonu to start at some point this season, but he won’t be an every-down guy from the jump.
Matt Corral still has a long way to go
Fans were pushing the ‘Corral future QB1’ narrative hard after he impressed early on in training camp. Unfortunately, he underperformed in Saturday’s preseason opener, completing just 1 of his 9 passes for 11 yards. The rookie looked uncomfortable with the constant pressure from Washington and was hesitant outside the pocket. It was a far cry from what fans were hoping for after a phenomenal camp.
The third-round pick out of Ole Miss was putting on an athletic and accurate clinic in Spartanburg. Here’s a video that conveys why fans are so excited for Corral:
— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) August 5, 2022
He executes a nice drop back before stepping up in the pocket and unloading a 40-yard missile to Keith Kirkwood, who wrangles the ball in the back of the end zone for the score. Corral has a lightning-fast release and a massive arm to go along with gritty athleticism in the run game.
While those attributes sound like the perfect candidate for a Panthers’ QB, the 23-year-old still has a lot to learn in the way of maturity and reading NFL defenses. For now, he will wait in the wings and learn from Mayfield, who he drew comparisons to as a prospect.
The Panthers are better off with Baker Mayfield under center and it’s only a matter of time before he wins the starting job. Aside from his superior skill and winning experience, Baker’s presence has riled up defenders and brought more intensity to the practice field. Cornerback Donte Jackson said that the trash talk is good for the team.
“You want to shut him up,” Jackson said.
That kind of intensity couldn’t come out of Sam Darnold’s mouth if his life depended on it, and that is why Baker will keep a distinct advantage in the competition. The secondary has already benefited from that extra motivation, causing multiple turnovers a day throughout training camp. Everything is pointing toward the Carolina Panthers making serious strides this season after winning just five games in 2021.
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