CHARLOTTE, NC, (AP) — Another year, another quarterback.
Now the Carolina Panthers settled on Baker Mayfield as QB — their fourth different Opening Day starter in as many years — the big question becomes whether he’s the guy who can break the franchise’s losing streak.
The Panthers are coming off five-win seasons under third-year coach Matt Ruhl and haven’t been to the postseason since 2017. Billionaire owner David Tepper’s patience is wearing thin after he bought the team at 22-43. 2018 year.
Tepper, formerly a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been around the game long enough to understand that it’s incredibly difficult to win games — let alone Super Bowls — without an outstanding quarterback.
That’s why Tapper made an aggressive push to get Deshaun Watson after Cam Newton, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold failed to get in the win column.
And so he took a chance on Mayfield, firing another dart in the hope of finding something that would hit the bull’s-eye.
“We’re not going to set any expectations or anything like that going forward,” said Mayfield, who was 29-30 in four years as the Browns’ starter after being selected No. 1 in the 2018 draft. overall. In my own experience, I’ve been in situations where they’ve won one game in two seasons before that. I don’t care about what happened before. I always try to focus on the moment and try to get the best out of the guys around me.”
Mayfield essentially signed a one-year deal.
His contract expires after the season, and he and Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, will become unrestricted free agents.
It won’t be easy for Mayfield to turn things around.
He inherits an offense that ranked 30th in the league last season and scored a paltry 17.9 points per game.
But he’s playing behind an improved offensive line after general manager Scott Fetterer drafted left tackle Ikki Ekwona sixth overall and signed free agents Austin Corbett of the Rams and center Bradley Bozeman of the Ravens.
“We hope he moves the offense,” Ruhl said. “I don’t want to make it too easy, but he’s an accurate guy, he’s a smart guy, plays fast. He knows where to go with the ball.”
THE RETURN OF MACAFFRA
Christian McCaffrey has missed 23 of the team’s last 33 games due to injury since the Panthers made him the highest-paid running back in the league.
But Rule told McCaffrey’s injury story will not prevent him from using it in full.
“I’m not going to waste my time worrying about, ‘Hey, is Christian going to get hurt?'” Rule said. “We only think of Christian in one way and that is to attack.”
Ruhl said the Panthers’ defense needs to go from “good to great.” In particular, this means creating more damage and finding ways to stop the opponent in the red zone.
In 2021, Carolina was 30th in the league in red zone touchdown percentage and 26th in turnovers.
“Being in the system for three years, there shouldn’t be any more communication errors,” said defensive end Brian Burns, the team’s leading pass rusher. “Anything about beating yourself up needs to be thrown out the window. It will take us from good to great. Once you get to that great level, the only thing that can beat you is a great offensive game. There will be no arbitrary problems.”
The Panthers believe they have one of the best young backfields in the league with Jacey Horn back from injury, along with Donte Jackson and C.J. Henderson at cornerback and Jeremy Chinn and Xavier Woods at safety. Horn and Henderson are former top-10 draft picks.
Carolina was second against the pass last season, and if Horn returns to full speed after a broken foot that kept him out of 14 games last season, he should remain near the top of the league in that area.
The Panthers’ biggest challenge on defense will be replacing Haan Reddick, a playmaker who had 11 sacks last season but signed with Philadelphia. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow is counting on Frankie Louvoo, Yetur Gross-Matas and Marquis Haynes to step up and help fill that void.
In a move that largely flew under the radar, the Panthers signed four-time All-Pro Johnny Hecker to the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams during free agency, giving them a solid veteran specialist group that also includes kicker Zane Gonzalez, the return of Andre Roberts and the length of JJ Jansen.
The Panthers ranked 28th overall in the NFL in special teams performance, according to Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams report, which ranks all 32 teams in 22 special teams categories and compiles an overall ranking.
“I think it’s time for us to start making an impact on special teams and I think we have the guys to do that,” Ruhl said.
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