The Panthers made the best move of Matt Rhule’s tenure as head coach on Wednesday. They gave up a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick (which could become a fourth-rounder) for Baker Mayfield, who was widely viewed as a top-10 quarterback at this time last year. And with Cleveland desperate to ship Mayfield off—and willing to eat $10.5 million of his salary to do so—he’ll cost Carolina about $5 million in cap space this season. That’s a good bit of business for a team that was desperate for an option not named Sam Darnold under center.
But this isn’t Carolina’s first (or even second) recent crack at a quarterback reclamation project. Just last offseason, the Panthers traded a day 2 pick for Darnold—who went no. 3 overall to Mayfield’s no. 1 in the 2018 draft—and then immediately picked up his fifth-year option, which locked in an $18.6 million cap hit for 2022. The offseason before that, Rhule handpicked Teddy Bridgewater to be his first starting quarterback and Carolina gave him a three-year, $63 million contract only to ship him off to Denver a year later. And last November, the Panthers paid Cam Newton $6 million to fill in for an injured Darnold (and attempt to sell tickets to an apathetic fan base).
When Carolina traded up in this year’s draft to take Matt Corral in the third round—and claimed they were willing to take him even earlier if needed—it seemed like the Panthers were finally, really looking to the future. Now, it appears we’ll be getting a Darnold vs. Mayfield camp battle, which means even fewer developmental reps for Corral.
None of the Panthers’ salvage jobs were egregious on their own. But combined, they’ve been costly: The $25.3 million owed to Carolina’s passers collectively this year is 10th most in the league, per Sportac. And that doesn’t factor in the draft capital the team had to give up to put this … underwhelming group together.
the Panthers really traded away…
all to assemble a QB room of:
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) July 6, 2022
So even though this trade may seem smart in a vacuum, it is yet another reminder that this franchise has wasted the past three years trying, and failing, to find a quarterback. And while that could be understood—finding a franchise QB is difficult for even the most competent organizations—Carolina has also failed to build up the rest of the roster. This Mayfield move was made to cover up past blunders. But it also exposed the fact that the team’s leadership doesn’t have a coherent long-term plan.
Rhule’s plan for 2022, at least, is clear: win enough games to save his job. After coming up empty-handed in the offseason quarterback market, Rhule’s best chance of getting off the hot seat is Mayfield. What’s unclear, though, is how much the Panthers will improve with him under center—and that’s because we don’t really know how good Mayfield can be.
The 2018 first-overall pick has produced two good stretches of play through his four NFL seasons. The first came in the second half of his rookie season, after Freddie Kitchens took over for Hue Jackson as the offensive play-caller. That was arguably the best Mayfield has looked as a pro. He showed poise in the pocket, he regularly pushed the ball downfield, and his accuracy metrics were on par with the league’s best passers. The second stretch came in the second half of the 2020 season, when Mayfield shook off an uneven start and finished the season ranked eighth in both EPA per play and success rate, per RBSDM.com. That season, first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski was able to ride the run game to early-down success, which set up the play-action passing game and kept Baker out of obvious passing situations, hiding his weaknesses as a pocket passer.
The 3 downward sloping curves from this graph in order represent Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield, and Jared Goff.
3 play-action-fueled QBs doing worse when they’re expected to pass? Call me shocked https://t.co/KJ5Tyy03P8
— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) May 23, 2022
That’s what makes this so tricky: The 2018 version of “Good Baker’’ bears little resemblance to 2020’s, so it’s hard to predict what a 2022 edition would even look like.
On top of that, Mayfield’s play outside of those two stretches has been brutal. His footwork has regressed since his rookie season, which has led to inaccuracy, and his inability to execute traditional drop-back passing concepts makes it hard to design an offense around him. Funnily enough, Carolina had to work around similar issues a season ago due to Darnold’s own limitations, which aren’t all that different from Mayfield’s. Then–offensive coordinator Joe Brady leaned heavily on simple play-action concepts that moved Darnold outside of the pocket, cut the field in half, and cleared up his reads. Brady also spammed option concepts that required Darnold to look at just one receiver—usually Christian McCaffrey—rather than going through a real progression. That simplistic approach worked pretty well for about a month: The Panthers started the season 3-0 and Darnold was putting up career-best numbers. Eventually, though, McCaffrey got hurt, the whole thing fell apart, and Rhule fired Brady in December.
That offense is essentially the same as what Mayfield and the 2020 Browns rode to the playoffs, which sounds like a good thing initially.
But if Stefanski (who is viewed as one of the brighter offensive minds in the NFL) and a far more talented Browns roster were unable to sustain that success after one season, what are the chances Rhule and Carolina can make it work?
Even if the Panthers are able to coax out the best version of Mayfield, the team’s ceiling for 2022 remains low. Unsurprisingly, the trade had a negligible effect on Carolina’s divisional and conference odds:
Win total: O/U 6.5 (up from 5.5)
Make Playoffs: +400 (from +550)
Win Super Bowl: 125-1 (same)
Win NFC: 60-1 (same)
Win NFC South: 10-1 (same)
Mayfield MVP: 75/1 (up from 100/1)
— Jaime Eisner (@JaimeEisner) July 6, 2022
And though the team’s win total got a one-game bump and its playoff odds saw a slight improvement, both numbers are down from where they were at this same point last summer. That’s fitting. While it may feel like the Panthers got better today, a look at the larger picture makes it clear this team is still headed in the wrong direction.