Baker Mayfield starts for Carolina Panthers and passes his first important test

Baker Mayfield got the starting nod for the Carolina Panthers in their first preseason game Saturday. In return for that distinction, he checked an important box against the Washington Commanders — looking healthy, confident and (for the most part) sharp in his lone drive of the day.

That drive ultimately stalled out on a bungled snap exchange, leaving the Panthers to kick a field goal in what amounted to a modest debut for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. In that brief appearance, Mayfield was 4-of-7 passing for 45 yards, also including one drop that hit a wideout in the hands, though it would have been a tough catch.

Whatever the case, it was a much-needed positive start for the quarterback in competition with Sam Darnold, two players who are trying to get their careers back on track in the final seasons of their rookie contracts. For his part, Darnold took advantage of a short field following a Washington turnover, throwing a nice 8-yard touchdown to wideout Rashard Higgins off his back foot while facing pressure. Darnold sat out the remainder of the game following his two drives.

"Obviously Sam [Darnold] got us in the end zone, Baker [Mayfield] got us down the field," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said after the game. "Looked like both guys played well."

Rhule also said that Darnold and Mayfield looked "in command," but that he'd have to look at the tape to see more.

For Mayfield, the solid start was arguably his first positive moment since a divorce with the Cleveland Browns this offseason. His trade to Carolina was triggered by the Browns dealing for embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson, leaving a vocal Mayfield twisting in the wind as he repeatedly and publicly requested to be dealt. The result was his eventual low-risk acquisition by Carolina, along with some much-needed simplicity for the quarterback.

That was on display in subtle ways Saturday. It was a brief glimpse showing the Panthers staff that Mayfield is a healthy version of himself on the field, something Cleveland didn’t see in 2021. It was also the first snapshot of Mayfield translating that health into confidence, which didn’t appear to be a problem as he moved around to create a few plays while taking the aforementioned end zone shot into tight coverage.

While there's not much else to read into it, Saturday's debut was undeniably a step forward and removes the anxiety of his first live snap in a different uniform. Mayfield’s next goal will be to absorb Carolina’s offense while battling with Darnold, despite it appearing that it may already be Mayfield’s job to lose.

"Night and day different, that's for sure," Mayfield said after the game regarding his comfort level with Ben McAdoo's offense now as compared to the start of training camp. "I'm a lot more comfortable now. Coach McAdoo's going to give us the keys to change things on the field. His saying is if he can't trust us, he can't trust himself. So I'm a lot more comfortable now, and I think that kinda permeates throughout our whole offense."

Carolina’s next preseason game will be at the New England Patriots on Friday. Mayfield and Darnold are expected to see more play in that game, with the likelihood of a starter being named following that week.

Baker Mayfield started the Carolina Panthers' first preseason game on Saturday. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Baker Mayfield started the Carolina Panthers' first preseason game on Saturday. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)