Real football technically may not be back, but something approaching it is in the form of preseason play. With this, comes the start of the second season of the Rhule era and a chance for Panthers fans to see the new pieces they acquired this offseason in action. While Sam Darnold is the de facto starter at quarterback following a trade involving multiple future picks, he was held out of the first preseason game and so the focus in terms of quarterback falls on the competition for the back-up quarterback spot between PJ Walker and Will Grier.
Walker, a former XFL star who started in the Panthers’ win against the Lions last season, saw extended playing time with the second string, going 10-21 for 161 and a touchdown. While Grier made a far less significant impression, he will likely get his chance to work with the second string later in the preseason, but for now it is Walker who has laid down the mantle for Grier to try and follow.
So, what did Walker do that was so impressive? Well, we’ve taken a look at the tape to find out.
First, let’s address the more mundane aspects of quarterback play, starting with poise and anticipation. The experts on fundamentals hammer in the importance of being mechanically sound passer as well as someone who’s mentally aware of when to throw the ball to lead the receiver instead of letting the receiver lead the QB. In the context of this game, Walker has that.
Here, the target is free agent signing David Moore, and Walker is able to time the throw so that he releases the ball just as Moore reaches the top of his route. This isn’t a play that jumps off the screen but is an essential trait for effective quarterback play at the NFL level.
On this next play, Walker is able to highlight what he does at an elite level, making plays in the face of pressure. With the edge rusher able to break through a double team, Walker keeps his head and finds Marshall over the middle.
This isn’t the most difficult throw in the world but the ability to focus on where to go with the ball down the field rather than the pressure is an important trait.
The following play is one that could easily get lost among some of the highlight plays that Walker made on Sunday. Facing a 1st-and-20, Walker is able to fit the ball in to Shi Smith down the right sideline for the first down.
This is not just a very pretty throw but also of Walker’s aggressive approach, looking to attack the defense even when back-up as he was. This can also get him into trouble at times, something that Matt Rhule has hinted at when discussing the back-up quarterback battle.
Now let’s focus on the flashy material, because this is what separates Walker from Panthers backups of the past.
On this first play, Walker is able to work from a clean pocket, but gets a bit impatient and almost breaks the pocket unnecessarily, but eventually finds a seam of space in the middle of the field. As the defense starts to react to Walker the runner, he is then aware enough to spot Marshall coming open down the field and is able to hit him in tons of space for the big play.
Yes, he didn’t need to break the pocket, but by doing so he is able to force the defense to react and then take advantage of that reaction.
There’s nothing to critique with this clip, however, which is extraordinary playmaking. In the last decade of football, quarterbacks like Tony Romo and Patrick Mahomes became famous for their ability to spin away from pressure and buy time in and out of the pocket. That’s exactly what we’re seeing here.
While rookie tackle Brady Christensen loses inside early, Walker is able to recognize it, drags his right foot, brings it to the ground, pushes off and accelerated away from the edge rusher before finding third round rookie Tommy Tremble in the back of the endzone, even if Omar Bayless was the intended receiver.
This next play is a little more mixed as, while the throw is ultimately a little behind rookie Chuba Hubbard, he does a good job of identifying the edge pressure early and uses his legs to buy himself time to make the throw.
However, not everything about Walker’s performance on Sunday was exemplary.
The most significant of these critiques is with respect to his accuracy, such as on the following plays.
In both cases, Walker makes a good decision about where to go with the ball, but just doesn’t put the ball in the right place. This is ultimately what is likely to stand between Walker and a more significant role than the Panthers’ back-up spot.
This sideline throw almost works, but it ends up off the fingertips of Brandon Zylstra. None of these misses are miles off, but he’s not quite on the money either.
Similarly, this is a hard throw the make on the run, but after going all the hard work to escape the pressure with his legs it is a little frustrating to see him unable to top it off with a completion.
Accuracy consistency aside, P.J. Walker impressed in his preseason debut, showing a rare combination of pose and playmaking creativity. While the back-up quarterback competition isn’t over yet, Walker’s performance on Sunday likely distances him somewhat from Grier.
Importantly, Walker looked like he belonged. His mobility, arm strength, and poise are all necessary traits considering the amount of pressure the offensive line put him under. He might not get a chance to show this once the regular seasons begins, but for the time being, this is Walker’s moment, and it is well earned.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)