The Carolina Panthers boasted the No. 2 defense in the entire NFL in 2021 but the offense slotted at No. 30. Needless to say, the focus for Carolina this offseason has been the offensive side of the football that now features a new coordinator in Ben McAdoo to go with notable additions to the roster in Baker Mayfield, Ikem Ekwonu, Bradley Bozeman, and Austin Corbett to go with the return of Christian McCaffrey from an injury that limited him to just seven games last season.
I had my first opportunity to see the 2022 Carolina Panthers during its eighth practice of training camp. Let’s examine my top three takeaways.
Sam Darnold Isn’t Handing QB Job Over Without a Fight
Darnold had a reasonably sound four-game stretch to start his tenure in Carolina but things dropped off quickly before he missed five games due to injury and ended the season poorly. The Panthers responded to his performance by trading up in the draft for Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral and then trading for Mayfield.
After observing practice on Friday, it’s clear that Corral is going to take some time before he is a threat to earn playing time on Sundays, but the competition is tight between Darnold and Mayfield. Both Darnold and Mayfield had strong showings in 7-on-7 work, highlighted by a precisely-placed throw by Mayfield down the seam to hit tight end Colin Thompson in stride.
Following the 7-on-7 session, Carolina shifted its focus to 11-on-11 red zone work and that’s where Darnold’s time on task with the Panthers gave him the upper hand. While Mayfield’s command of the offense is impressive, Darnold is the one who was more consistent in red zone work. He threw multiple touchdown passes where he illustrated good patience, touch and accuracy.
With Darnold’s strong showing in the team red zone period and Mayfield showcasing himself well in 7-on-7, Rhule commented on those variables after practice.
“Obviously when you are in team periods, that’s way more applicable than 7-on-7. To me, 7-on-7 isn’t even a competitive drill, it’s a teaching tool that takes you to the team periods,” said Rhule. “We just try to look at it across the board. It will come down to who can function within the scheme. Who has production, who leads the team? And then who takes care of the football and finally, who manages the situations? Great quarterbacks show up in the RedZone, they show up in two-minute and on third down.”
Mayfield is the preferred option for Panthers fans, but Darnold isn’t going to relinquish the job easily.
Offensive Line Has Options But Plenty To Sort Out
Carolina took notable steps to improve its offensive line this offseason but they aren’t close to establishing who the starting five is going to be. During Friday’s practice, Carolina rotated multiple players at multiple spots. Part of that was due to Corbett missing practice, but the left side of the line is a work in progress and jobs are still out there to be claimed.
Ekwonu figures to be the long-term solution at left tackle after being the No. 6 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, but it’s clear that he is still finding his way. Defensively, Carolina offers notable speed at edge rusher in Brian Burns, Marquis Haynes, and Amare Barno who presented challenges for Ekwonu when it came to being able to stay square in pass protection and maintain the width of the pocket.
There’s always a delicate balance for coaches to strike between letting the competition play out and quickly determining who the best five are so that the unit can gel together. After practice, Rhule commented on the offensive line competitions and what the criteria is for earning a role.
“Jobs will be earned off tape,” Rhule said. “We’re not basing it off where anyone was drafted or expectations. It’s based on the tape.”
Run Game Could Be Outstanding
McCaffrey is a special football player and that was apparent on Friday. After two injury-plagued seasons, McCaffrey hasn’t provided Carolina with the availability desired from the face of the franchise but Friday’s practice was a great reminder of just how impactful a healthy McCaffrey can be.
Simply put, he was electric. He is just such an instinctive playmaker and his ability to press the line of scrimmage, read leverage, and make his blockers right is outstanding. And, of course, he is dynamic in the open field and is an elite receiving back.
Carolina has been managing McCaffrey’s practice load this training camp and I was fortunate to see a full effort from him on Friday and he was dominant. Fingers will be crossed in Charlotte that the injury bug escapes McCaffrey because he is a difference-maker—that was on full display during Friday’s practice.