The Panthers on Monday named Mayfield the starter for the Sept. 11 opener against the Cleveland Browns, who moved on from the first pick of the 2018 draft after trading with the Houston Texans for Deshaun Watson.
Watson will not play in the opener after being suspended by the NFL for the first 11 games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, so it will be Mayfield against Jacoby Brissett.
Mayfield won what the Panthers described as an “open” competition against 2021 starter Sam Darnold, although league sources said the job was his to lose all along.
“When we started the process we said we were looking at three things,” coach Matt Rhule said. “Number one, mastery of the offense; number two, situational football excellence; and number three, moving the ball and getting guys involved.
“Baker has made a lot of improvement, a lot of growth in all three areas in a short amount of time.”
Mayfield said last week during joint practices against the New England Patriots he wasn’t worried about when the decision was made.
“I’ve said it before, the locker room and the organization is going to go as the QB room goes, and as long as we’re leading correctly and we’re supporting each other, good things are going to happen,” Mayfield said. “So we’re not worried about when that’s going to happen, just trying to get better each day.”
Mayfield never lost confidence after Cleveland gave up on him.
“It’s not a redemption year,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of. I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody else. I’m just trying to lead this locker room the best I can and win a bunch of ball games.”
Carolina hopes to get the 2020 version of Mayfield, who went 11-5 and won a playoff game for the Browns with 26 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner struggled to a 6-8 record last season with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while dealing with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder.
The Panthers began looking to upgrade at quarterback almost immediately after the 2021 season when Darnold went 4-7 as the starter. They were among four teams aggressively going after Watson, who at the time had 24 cases of sexual misconduct filed against him.
When Watson signed with the Browns, the Panthers explored the possibility of trading for Mayfield around the draft before adding Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral in the third round. The holdup was Cleveland’s unwillingness to the majority of Mayfield’s 2022 salary of $18.9 million.
That changed in early July when Cleveland agreed to pay $10.5 million of the contract, leaving the Panthers $4.58 million after Mayfield agreed to take a $3.5 million cut with the potential to earn that back in incentives.
Being named the starter is the first step in reaching those incentives, 70% of the snaps, according to a league source.
Mayfield wasn’t handed the job immediately. He and Darnold split repetitions evenly through the first three weeks of training camp.
But as Mayfield quickly learned offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s system it became apparent he was going to win the job. Even McAdoo, who rated Mayfield the sixth-best quarterback in the 2018 draft and had questions about Mayfield’s ability to run a pro style offense, was won over early.
“Baker since he’s been here in the last two weeks, it’s been pretty impressive,” McAdoo said. “One of his strengths is command. He can lead a room, he can command a room, he can command an offense. He has a good presence about him. And, you know, he’s got a fire in his guts.”
Mayfield kept his flamboyant personality under control throughout camp, choosing his words carefully and talking with great respect for Darnold and the competition between them.
Wide receiver Rashard Higgins, who played the last four seasons in Cleveland with Mayfield, laughed early in camp at the thought that would continue for long.
“He’s just holding it in right now,” Higgins said. “But when it comes out, it’s going to come out. May God be with you when it comes out.”
Perhaps that will happen now that Mayfield has been named the starter and begins preparing for the Browns.
“Baker, I’ve seen big trash talk, and he’s usually got a lot of F-bombs in there,” Higgins said. “I don’t know when it’s going to come out, but it’s going to come out.”