Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold? Tracking which Panthers QB is having the better field

Sam Darnold walked off the podium and passed his competition, Baker Mayfield. The two didn’t shake hands but Darnold whispered “good luck” as they swapped places in front of the press.

The two replayed that swap throughout practice Wednesday, alternating snaps on the first day of Panthers training camp. Darnold, the incumbent, worked with the No. 1 unit while Mayfield, the challenger, worked with the No. 2 united

They’ll flip-flop Thursday, in a decision head coach Matt Rhule said was made to give the quarterbacks a chance to build rapport with the receivers throughout the day.

Darnold and Mayfield’s battle will dominate Panthers’ training camp as each looks to build positive momentum through practices and preseason games to become the Week 1 starting quarterback against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 11. Here’s a breakdown of their Day 1 performance.

Sam Darnold

Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold, right, stops to sign an autograph for a fan following practice on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

Stats (unofficial): 11-of-14 passing, 5 TDs

Darnold continued his strong performance from the spring into the summer, looking poised in the pocket during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. He kept the ball short, making quick reads and frequently checking the ball to his running backs against what Rhule said was primarily quarters coverage from the defense.

I found Christian McCaffrey in the red zone for three touchdowns on short passes and looked for his tight ends, Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas for the other two. Two of his incompletions hit a receiver’s hands, as Rashard Higgins dropped one short pass and Thomas couldn’t bring down a back-shoulder pass in the end zone.

All of Darnold’s touchdown passes came via short passes in the red zone.

“I thought Sam was on time, it looked … like he did what he’s supposed to do,” Rhule said. “I’ll probably have to check the tape to see anything more.”

Of course, the usual caveats come into play here. While Darnold did go against a pass rush, it was one that couldn’t hit him. His offseason training centered around his feet, making sure that they stayed calm in the chaos of a rapidly devolving pocket.

Those feet stayed quiet Wednesday.

“We got a team setting and I got guys on my feet, defensive lineman rushing, guys blocking for me,” Darnold said. “I can feel my feet and I feel like I’m more calm. Especially in OTAs, I felt like I made a lot of strides there.”

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Best throw: Darnold found McCaffrey in the right edge of the end zone after the running back ran a corner route. The quarterback placed a 20-yard pass for the touchdown.

Notable mistake: Darnold’s day was near pristine, but there was one play where he scrambled and threw a pass he said should’ve been picked. I called the play “a silly mistake.”

Baker Mayfield

Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield throws a ball back to a teammate prior to the start of drills at practice on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield throws a ball back to a teammate prior to the start of drills at practice on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

Stats (unofficial): 9-of-16 passing, 0 TDs, 1 INT

Mayfield showcased his powerful arm on a few occasions during his first Panthers practice. Two deep balls (intended for Brandon Zylstra) were overthrown despite Zylstra having a step on his defender. Near the end of practice, Mayfield tried putting some touch on an outside vertical intended for Keith Kirkwood but defensive back Juston Burris knocked the ball towards teammate Keith Taylor for an interception.

Fans screamed as Mayfield’s long throws sailed through the air. Vertical throws naturally excite, especially when fans are used to seeing Darnold toss check-downs. But Mayfield did not have his risks rewarded on Wednesday. Instead, he looked like a quarterback searching for comfort within an unfamiliar system. Mayfield looked sharpest when targeting Zylstra. He targeted him four times, most among any other wide receiver.

“There’s a time to be aggressive and try to push the ball downfield without being stupid and being careless,” Mayfield said. “There’s aggressiveness, and then there’s carelessness. It’s a fine line between those and knowing when to take your shots and when not to get too greedy and play in the flow of the game.”

Finding a flow will be challenging for Mayfield as he splits reps with Darnold. The team is also allotting practice reps for rookie Matt Corral and PJ Walker. It’s a crowded practice field with all four vying for practice reps.

Too often Mayfield double-clutched throws, a habit I showcased in Cleveland when reads were murky. I missed second-year receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. where a deep crossing route. The ball sailed throw Marshall’s outstretched hands after Mayfield double-clutched the throw.

Best throw: Mayfield connected with Zylstra on a tightly-contested deep slant during the team’s first 7-on-7 drill. Zylstra lined up split-wide left, shook his defender at the line of scrimmage and Mayfield ripped the ball directly into a crossing Zylstra. The ball screamed off Mayfield’s hand as he placed it high and away from trouble.

Notable mistake: Mayfield cannot throw too many interceptions during training camp or he’ll lose this competition. Rather than tossing a former practice squad receiver a 50-50 ball, throwing it high and away would’ve made Mayfield’s day look more sound. Mayfield made too many costly pre-snap errors in Cleveland. That cannot continue in Carolina.

Darnold or Mayfield: Who won the day?

Darnold played like a quarterback who is familiar with his targets and comfortable in his system. On one of his five touchdowns, he shimmied after tight end Tommy Tremble caught a goal-line ball through traffic. He’s having fun with it and won Day 1.

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