NFL News & Analysis

Panthers’ success will be dependent on two biggest additions: Baker Mayfield and Ikem Ekwonu

Spartanburg, South Carolina, US; Carolina Panthers quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (6) and Sam Darnold (14) on the field during training camp at Wofford College. Mandatory Credit: Griffin Zetterberg-USA TODAY Sports

• A New England Patriots source present at the team's joint practice sessions with the Carolina Panthers said the quarterback competition “seems a formality at this point.”

• Rookie first-rounder Ikem Ekwonu was named the Panthers' starting left tackle, and he's set to protect Carolina's other big offseason acquisition in Mayfield.

• Among other storylines at the joint practices, Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn has particularly impressed, one Patriots source said.


FOXBORO, Mass. — No one within the Carolina Panthers organization will formally say it, but a New England Patriots source wasn’t afraid to state the obvious after the two teams held joint practices in the fields behind Gillette Stadium.

Baker Mayfield was clearly better than Sam Darnold,” the source said. “Seems like the competition is just a formality at this point.”

Mayfield received most of the Panthers’ first-team quarterback reps during Tuesday’s joint session with the Patriots. Mayfield and Darnold split first-team reps in Wednesday’s practice, and one team source indicated that Carolina could choose its starting quarterback soon. Head coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday afternoon that the official decision could be made at any point.

“It could be two more weeks from now, it could be now,” Rhule said.

Rhule revealed the Panthers mostly plan on playing second- and third-stringers in Friday’s preseason game against the Patriots.

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POTENTIALLY DOMINANT DEFENSE

The Panthers are in a fascinating place as they enter the 2022 season. Behind the scenes, they feel optimistic about their defense for good reason. It’s a young, talented group filled with recent high draft picks. The team has invested a ton of resources into the unit, and it has elite potential based on age and pedigree.

Panthers projected starting defense
Player Position Age Year, Pick Drafted 2021 PFF Grade
Derrick Brown DI 24 2020, 7th overall 64.4
Matt Ioannidis DI 28 Free agent 65.4
Brian Burns EDGE 24 2019, 16th overall 60.8
Yetur Gross-Matos EDGE 24 2020, 38th overall 63.8
Cory Littleton LB 28 Free agent 47.8
Shaq Thompson LB 28 2015, 25th overall 72.7
Jaycee Horn CB 22 2021, 8th overall 67.8
Donte Jackson CB 26 2018, 55th overall 61.3
C.J. Henderson CB 23 Trade 50.7
Jeremy Chinn S 24 2020, 64th overall 71.4
Xavier Woods S 27 Free agent 66.4

Carolina’s defense ranked fifth in EPA per play last season but lost cornerback Stephon Gilmore, edge defenders Haason Reddick and Morgan Fox, linebacker Jermaine Carter and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, among others, in free agency this spring. But recent high picks and free-agent additions are ready to step in, and the team hired former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilkes to serve as defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach.

The defenses on both sides of the ball ruled the joint practices, according to team sources from both sides. A Patriots source said cornerback Jaycee Horn and the Panthers’ defensive front impressed him the most. Horn, who remained on a snap count returning off the PUP list this week, had an impressive stretch in Wednesday’s one-on-one drills when he broke up a pass intended for Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and then intercepted a pass on a target to wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey.

It’s unclear how the Panthers will wind up divvying up snaps between Horn, Donte Jackson and C.J. Henderson, but Horn might wind up playing in the slot. Carolina felt its defensive line was dominant against a Patriots offensive line that still seems to be struggling with new concepts implemented this summer.

TWO KEY PLAYERS ON OFFENSE

The Panthers believe their offense is close, and how the unit fares in 2022 will likely depend largely on their two biggest offseason additions: offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu, selected sixth overall out of N.C. State, and quarterback Baker Mayfield, acquired for a 2024 conditional fifth-round pick.

Rhule said the team wanted to see Ekwonu play left tackle in a preseason game before putting him with the first-team offense in practice. That’s what happened last week, and now Rhule has named Ekwonu the starting left tackle moving forward.

He was shaky this week in practice against an experienced Patriots defensive line featuring Matt Judon and Deatrich Wise on the edges. Brady Christensen and Michael Jordan will continue to compete to start at left guard, Pat Elflein and Bradley Bozeman will duke it out to start at center (as long as Bozeman is healthy – he suffered an ankle injury Tuesday in practice and will be out two-to-three weeks), new addition Austin Corbett will play right guard and Taylor Moton will start at right tackle. It should be a better line than what Carolina deployed in 2021 — as long as Ekwonu is up to the task.

“We wanted Ickey to play, put it on tape in a game before we put him with the ones,” Rhule said. “We wanted him to go in a game and play and then sorta earn it with his play. He played well in the game.”

An NFL pro scout didn’t believe Christensen would be the better option at left tackle.

“It’s a lose-lose until Ickey improves,” he said.

But Mayfield clearly has more upside than Darnold based on their previous starting experience, and it always would have been an upset for the 2018 Cleveland Browns No. 1 overall pick to lose out on the starting job.

Mayfield, too, must play better in-season than he performed Tuesday in the joint practice with New England. He made some quality throws during a final 11-on-11 period but ultimately failed to get the ball in the end zone during a two-minute drill and struggled when targeting Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills despite having a budding star wideout in D.J. Moore and a quality starter in Robbie Anderson.

Running back Christian McCaffrey is healthy and should be an every-down starter, and Carolina has decent options at their third wide receiver spot in Terrace Marshall Jr., Rashard Higgins and Shi Smith, though the team is open to adding another pass catcher. Tight end Ian Thomas is currently out with a rib injury, and 2021 third-round pick Tommy Tremble was mostly spelling him on the first team in practice.

Mayfield was more consistent in Wednesday’s session but was throwing against second-string defenders during the final two-minute drill, and Carolina was without Anderson (quad injury) and Marshall (hamstring injury).

“We’d love to be a little further along,” Mayfield said. “There’s always room for improvement and progress to be had, but proud of our guys. We’ve had a ‘next man up' mentality.”

Darnold also made some decent throws but ultimately was picked off by cornerback Shaun Wade on a deflection when nearing the end zone in his own two-minute drill. He was intercepted by Mills to kick off Wednesday’s two-minute drill but made an impressive, needle-threading throw to undrafted rookie wide receiver Derek Wright for a score.

LACK OF DISCIPLINE?

Both Tuesday and Wednesday’s practices were marred by fights between the two teams. Patriots wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Kristian Wilkerson and center James Ferentz were ejected from Tuesday’s practice for scraps, while Panthers safety Kenny Robinson and defensive tackle Phil Hoskins also were booted from the session.

Tempers flared again Wednesday when Robinson appeared to knock Wilkerson unconscious with a blind-side block during a kickoff drill and then celebrated over him. On the ensuing team drill, Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise hit McCaffrey to the ground, and another fight broke out, even spilling into the first row of stands, where a player fell on a fan. Robinson, Wise and Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard all were ejected from practice.

A Patriots source felt the Panthers were undisciplined in practice and that those issues would extend into the regular season if not addressed.

“They’re never going to have a record reflective of their talent if that doesn’t change,” he said.

In a weakened NFC, some people around the NFL feel that Carolina has a chance to sneak into the playoffs or at least put together a near-.500 record. Their current win total betting odds set their over/under at 6.5 wins. They won five games in 2021, but key players are another year older and more experienced, and Mayfield should give them a better chance than Darnold, as long as he officially wins the job.

The Panthers have talent, and they were smart to wait until Mayfield’s price dropped low enough to make them comfortable swinging a trade with the Cleveland Browns for the veteran quarterback. But they still have questions to answer during the 2022 season, and Rhule’s continued employment as head coach of the franchise will be dependent on how the team responds.

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