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Can Baker Mayfield lift Carolina Panthers into playoff contention? NFL sources believe so

Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) walks off the field after the Browns beat the Detroit Lions at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

While other quarterback-needy teams around the NFL were proactive in their pursuit of the position this offseason, the Carolina Panthers held back and took a patient approach before an early-July splash move.

And sources around the league believe that lack of urgency could actually pay off in the form of a playoff berth after the team acquired Baker Mayfield in a trade with the Cleveland Browns.

The Panthers bided their time before the 2022 NFL Draft, traded up into the third round to select Matt Corral out of Mississippi and then waited until July 6 to take their biggest swing by sending a 2024 conditional fifth-round pick to the Browns for Mayfield.

Carolina was in need of a bargain at the position since the team is set to pay last year’s starter, Sam Darnold, $18.858 million in 2022, so the Browns took on $10.5 million of Mayfield’s salary before moving on from the former first overall pick. Mayfield also agreed to reduce his salary by $3.5 million, which he can re-earn through incentives. After all that, he is on the salary cap for just $4.858 million in 2022.

The Panthers wound up with a potential bargain in Mayfield, as the Browns were out of options with their former starter after burning bridges by pursuing, and then trading for, Deshaun Watson. Mayfield, fresh off of a 63.6 PFF grade last season while playing through a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, lacked a sizable market after the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders had already made moves at the position.

But Mayfield is just two seasons removed from leading the Browns to their first playoff win since 1994, and he ranked ninth among quarterbacks with an 87.5 overall PFF grade from 2018 to 2020 and 10th with an 84.9 passing grade in the same timespan.

So, how will Mayfield fare in 2022? Can Darnold really beat out his fellow 2018 NFL Draft classmate for the starting job? And what is the Panthers’ ceiling this season after the team's upgrades at quarterback and along the offensive line? We asked sources around the NFL for their takes.

EXPECTATIONS FOR MAYFIELD

Mayfield went just 253-of-418 for 3,010 yards with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season and ranked 27th out of 38 qualified quarterbacks with a 62.4 PFF passing grade. But even in a down year, Mayfield was considerably better than the three quarterbacks who suited up for Carolina last season in Darnold, P.J. Walker and Cam Newton, and nearly everyone we spoke to, including a scout from a Panthers division rival, expected him to be an upgrade over that trio.

Current Panthers quarterbacks in 2021
Baker Mayfield Sam Darnold P.J. Walker Matt Corral*
Overall grade 63.6 55.2 52.0 86.1
Passing grade 62.4 54.4 52.6 82.1
Big-time throw % 4.5% 3.5% 0% 4.3%
Turnover-worthy play % 3.9% 4.3% 3.8% 1.8%
Average depth of target 9.2 7.6 9.5 8.5
Accuracy % 57.8% 55.4% 41.9% 65.0%
PFF wins above replacement (WAR) 1.03 0.29 -0.07 0.82

* in the FBS at Mississippi

Mayfield earned an 85.1 passing grade and ranked ninth among NFL quarterbacks with a 3.20 PFF WAR figure in 2020 before injuries hampered his 2021 season.

“I think he’ll be somewhere between his past two seasons,” one AFC analytics executive told PFF. “Definitely seems worth a shot for a team that’s trying to avoid being among the worst.”

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