If you were looking for an immediate answer for the Panthers’ QB1 debate, you’ll likely have to wait another week.

Though the Panthers were able to squeak out a 23-21 win against Ron Rivera and the Commanders, the focus is deservedly on the QB competition between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold in Carolina. Despite the trade for Baker, Matt Rhule intends to keep the competition – or at least his decision on who will be the starter – close throughout preseason.

There wasn’t anything truly bad about either quarterbacks’ performances against Washington – rather we didn’t see enough that a fair decision could be reached in the debate. Mayfield completed four of 7 passes for 45 yards, while Darnold only attempted three passes, completing two of them for 16 yards and a touchdown.

Still, let’s take a quick look at each quarterback’s performance to see what’s worth tracking as the preseason progresses.

Baker Mayfield

Mayfield is expected by many to be the Panthers’ opening day starter, though the sense is the coaching staff is keeping that decision as ambiguous as possible – perhaps to make Darnold a more palatable trade candidate should someone get hurt elsewhere around the league. As the third major quarterback transaction of the Rhule era, the pressure is on for Mayfield to be the fix the quarterback position has needed for years.

For what it’s worth, Mayfield’s first series of action post surgery went pretty well, even with the small sample size. 

Mayfield’s first dropback as a Panther saw shadows of his past. Often while under pressure in Cleveland, he’d look to scramble outside to the sideline with varying degrees of success. The problem is that oftentimes he’d look to scramble immediately even if the protection held up, and as you may have guessed that was a source of frustration.

On this play, however, Mayfield does a great job of navigating around the tentacle arm of Montez Sweat (No. 90) and up the pocket. His running speed isn’t top tier (which explains why he didn’t continue cutting up field), but he still manages to move fluidly enough to break outside toward the sideline.

Throughout his career Mayfield has often been a top 10 deep passer accuracy-wise. The accuracy dipped in 2021 with the torn labrum in his non throwing shoulder, but with a little time healing it should return to form this season.

This throw to Robbie Anderson has plenty of zip on it on a low arc thanks to well above average velocity from Mayfield, and though it’s on target it can’t be hauled in. Anderson lacks the frame to make plays on these contested catches, as he works better with a bit of separation. Still, I like the placement and arc from Mayfield on this throw as well as the read and ultimate decision to throw it.

A couple plays later, Mayfield has a better connection with Shi Smith on this third and short. The throw is a bit late since Mayfield doesn’t throw with anticipation to Smith, but just as he gets smacked he’s able to strike with Smith to move the chains.

This would be Mayfield’s sole drive of the night – but one where he helped drive the Panthers six minutes into easy field goal range. Overall, his first impressions with the team saw a number of good decisions in his limited playing time. 

“Some good, some bad,” Mayfield said when asked to sum up his first drive as a Panther. “Proud of the group, converting a few third downs and driving the ball down the field….We had an opportunity to go down there and score a touchdown, obviously getting a field goal, points are always good on the opening drive. But yeah, it’s just the frustration of not ending up in the end zone.”

Sam Darnold

Not many quarterbacks around the league are on as tight a leash as Sam Darnold. In 2021, the hope was the mistakes he showed throughout his Jets career would be wiped away in a fresh start, but after a fast start last season his flaws came back to haunt the offense. 

If Darnold were to reclaim the starting job, the revamped offensive line promises to be a step up from the league bottom pass protection the year prior. There won’t be much to go over from this game, however, as Darnold only threw the ball three times.

“I think for right now it’s just good to get back out there, you know, during the preseason,” said the incumbent starter. “Obviously, we’ve been working super hard throughout training camp and to be able to actually get in there and, you know, to get hit a couple times too. Obviously, it’s not ideal [to go three-and-out on the second series] but it’s good to kind of shake those cobwebs off because you obviously don’t get hit during practice.”

“So it was good to get back out there and get hit a couple times and kind of feel that, that pressure of a real game.”

Via Pro Football Reference, Darnold had an on target rate of 74.5% in 2021, 25th among all qualified quarterbacks. If this pass to Brandon Zylstra is of any indication, it’s not looking more consistent. The pass may be caught, but as it’s behind Zylstra he has to go out of his way to make the sliding grab.

A play like this is important because it limits what receivers can do after the catch – Darnold looks to have rushed both his mechanics and his throw after noticing the interior pressure creeping up. Panthers fans are familiar with how this affected the flow of the 2021 offense and Darnold is frankly fortunate this was even caught in the first place.

Fortunately, the former #3 pick is able to offset that placement with a much better throw just two plays later.

Carolina’s offensive line struggled throughout the day against the Commanders’ defensive line, giving their quarterbacks plenty of opportunity to practice under pressure. Darnold is able to make the most of it off the play fake against Montez Sweat, who had his way with the left side of the line on a few plays, including #6 pick Ikem Ekwonu on this snap.

Under heavy pressure, Darnold is able to place this perfectly into a spot where only Rashad Higgins (another former Brown) can catch it. The Higgins signing went under the radar, but he has a history of clutch catches in Cleveland – sort of like what Ricky Proehl was to the franchise back in the mid 2000s’.

Again the throw is perfect, reminiscent of the peak Darnold has shown from time to time.

Photo Credit: Kenny Richmond/Carolina Panthers

There aren’t any major statements to make in the debate between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold that we haven’t already seen, not yet anyway. Mayfield made some good plays on his sole drive, though nothing spectacular. Darnold’s tape was even more limited, but the touchdown to Higgins showed the frustrating potential that he’s been light years from reaching.

Despite what Rhule implies, the starting job is likely Mayfield’s to lose. The two have shared first team reps in training camp, but because of the team’s desperation to find another arm this offseason, Darnold’s odds of reclaiming his job by opening day look to be a longshot. 

(Featured Image via Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Johnny Kinsley
In addition to The Riot Report, Johnny Kinsley writes for The Phinsider, Dynasty League Football, and 49ers Hub. He is a devoted member of the Church of Curtis Samuel.