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The Panthers enter training camp with a bevy of questions

Will the Panthers see the healthy Christian McCaffrey the team got in his first three seasons or the injury-riddled player of the past two seasons.
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Will the Panthers see the healthy Christian McCaffrey the team got in his first three seasons or the injury-riddled player of the past two seasons?

I know it's rude to use all caps, but FOOTBALL IS BACK! Alright, I got that out of my system. This is a time of optimism. A time when true fans can think, "why not us?" Or, true cynics can lament, "great, we've got these two sub-par players competing for the most important position on the field?"

This week, we reached out to Bradley Smith, the managing editor of Cat Scratch Reader, an SB Nation blog dedicated to fans of the Carolina Panthers because, like all other 31 NFL squads, the Panthers have a lot of questions. And, so does the Overtime.

Baker Mayfield v. Sam Darnold

The quarterback backstory behind this is pretty simple. Last season, the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold, the third overall selection of the 2018 NFL Draft by the N.Y. Jets, in exchange for a 2021 sixth-round pick and second-and fourth-round picks in 2022. In 12 games played (11 starts), he threw for 2,527 yards and tossed nine touchdowns and 13 picks. Additionally, he ran for five scores and was sacked 35 times. His passer rating was 71.9 and the team was 4-7 when he was under center.

Baker Mayfield was the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns (two picks ahead of Darnold). He was traded to Carolina a few weeks ago for a 2024 conditional fifth-round draft pick. In 14 games started, Mayfield went 6-8 for the Browns, throwing for 3,010 yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He only had one rushing touchdown and was sacked 43 times and had a passer rating of 83.1.

It is also important to mention that both quarterbacks struggled with injuries last season.

Gone is Cam Newton and the team also drafted Matt Corral from Ole Miss in the third round of this year’s draft.

“I believe that both options are less than ideal, but Mayfield at least has two years of above-average tape to his advantage, while Darnold has looked like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league for both the Panthers and Jets outside of the first three weeks of the 2021 season.”
— Bradley Smith, managing editor Cat Scratch Reader

Oddly enough, the Panthers spent a lot of draft capital on Darnold but Mayfield certainly has the better recent stats, overall stats and pedigree. Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule insists that Darnold and Mayfield will compete for the starting job but Smith thinks that the battle may just be a smoke screen.

“I believe that both options are less than ideal, but Mayfield at least has two years of above-average tape to his advantage, while Darnold has looked like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league for both the Panthers and Jets outside of the first three weeks of the 2021 season,” Smith said. “I think that Matt Rhule genuinely wants to see if a quarterback competition will get the best out of Darnold, and it's possible the organization wants to try and move him to a team that needs a quarterback during the preseason if that scenario arises. Even if the Panthers are unable to move Darnold (which I believe will be the case) I can't really imagine a non-injury scenario where Darnold starts Week 1 over Mayfield.”

The rookie class

Every season, every team has a surprise rookie. Sometimes it’s the obvious top pick and sometimes it’s a sleeper, someone picked in the third round or lower (occasionally, an undrafted rookie breaks through). Here’s this season’s Panthers rookie class:

Smith likes the potential of Brandon Smith, a linebacker from Penn State, a.k.a Linebacker U. An all-Big Ten player in 2021, Brandon Smith played three seasons (2019-21) at Penn State and according to Bradley Smith, posted some good numbers.
“I think linebacker Brandon Smith has a chance to stand out this season,” Smith said. “He was a three-year player at Penn State and had 132 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and four sacks. The Panthers need help at linebacker, so Smith will have plenty of opportunities to show what he can do, and I think he has the potential to be a solid player in Carolina.”

Which version of RUN CMC will we see this year?

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This is not a question Panthers fans want to see but will the team see the healthy Christian McCaffrey the team got in his first three seasons or the injury-riddled player (only 10 games played) in the past two seasons? Clearly, as Smith points out, he is a game changer and can be one of the league’s most dangerous weapons and it may be all about load management.

“I hope we see the 1,000/1,000 version from a few years ago, but I'm afraid we'll see a slightly downgraded version this season,” Smith said. Hopefully, the Panthers are able to manage his playing time so we can see him for a full season for the first time in two years. I feel like the Panthers have the depth at running back with Chuba Hubbard and D'Onta Foreman to keep CMC healthy for a full 17-game schedule, and I hope they're able to take advantage of that."

Is that a hot seat I smell?

Matt Rhule enters year three with a 10-23 record in his first stint as an NFL head coach. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio says Rhule is "clearly on the hot seat" and that the Panthers are in desperation mode in 2022. Smith is a bit more optimistic but does think that the seat has heat.

“It's never too early to ask that,” Smith explained. “The Panthers are in year three of a rebuild and have gone 5-11 and 5-12 in their first two years.

“Rhule has a history of showing results in his third year at Temple and Baylor, and the Panthers look better on paper than they have over the past two seasons, so there's a chance this is the year things finally turn around. David Tepper has said multiple times that Rhule has his support, but I feel that another losing season — especially one where they can't get over the five-win hump — will light Rhule's seat on fire heading into year four."

Are you saying there’s a chance?

Let’s break down the NFC South going into training camp. Tampa Bay has an aging roster led by Tom Brady, who will be 45 years old this season but plays like he’s 27 due to all the magical avocado ice cream he eats. He did lose his security blanket, Rob Gronkowski, to retirement and he has a new head coach in Todd Bowles but most of the pundits expect Tampa to run away with the division. The New Orleans Saints will be turning back to Jameis Winston at quarterback, who suffered a torn ACL and had MCL damage to his left knee last season and will have a new head coach in Dennis Allen now that Sean Payton has retired. And, the Atlanta Falcons will have a new quarterback under center and after one day of competition Marcus Mariota was named starting QB (did Desmond Ridder look that bad?). Smith thinks the Panthers have a shot to make some noise but pump the breaks if you are thinking division champs.

“I think it's competitive, but only for spots 2-4 in the standings,” Smith said. “The Bucs are the runaway favorites to win the division again and the Saints look to be better than both the Panthers and Falcons, but there's a chance they could regress without Sean Payton calling the shots.

“The Panthers appear to be better than the Falcons, but both teams are expected to compete for third place and avoid a dead-last finish. I don't think the Panthers are ready to compete for one of the top two spots in the division yet, but there's a slight chance they could surprise everyone and eke out a Wild Card berth with a second-place finish in the NFC South."

That's all from training camp this week, but we'll check in with Smith and the Cat Scratch Reader gang again soon.

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Robb Crocker is a digital editor with WFAE. Originally from New Jersey, Robb grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, where majored in print and broadcast journalism and also studied English and creative writing. He earned a Master's degree in Communication from Rutgers University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at VCU's Media, Art & Text program. He is a veteran news/sports reporter and digital editor with stints at the Washington Post, Hanley Wood magazines, Richmond.com, WTVR CBS 6 and WRIC ABC 8. He has also produced the Writing Our Way Out podcast.