Baker Mayfield starts for the Carolina Panthers and passes his first major test

Mayfield Baker got the green light for the Carolina Panthers in their first pre-season game on Saturday. In exchange for this distinction, he ticked an important box against the Washington Commanders — looking healthy, confident and (for the most part) lively in his only commute of the day.

That drive eventually stalled on a failed instant trade, leaving the Panthers to score a field goal in what amounted to a humble start 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 a drop that hit a wide in the hands, although that would have been a tough catch.

Either way, it was a much-needed positive start for the quarterback competing with Sam Darnold – two players who are both trying to get their careers back on track in the final seasons of their rookie contracts. For his part, Darnold was able to take advantage of a short field following a turnover from Washington, throwing a nice touchdown from 8 yards wide Rashard Higgins of his back foot while facing the pressure. Darnold missed the rest of the game after his two practices.

“Obviously Sam [Darnold] got us in the end zone, Baker [Mayfield] got us down on the pitch,” Rhule said after the game. “It looked like both guys had played well. Rhule also said Darnold and Mayfield seemed “in control,” but said he would have to watch the tape to see Suite.

For Mayfield, the good start was arguably his first positive moment since a negative divorce from the Cleveland Browns this offseason. His trade with Carolina was sparked by the Browns dealing with beleaguered quarterback Deshaun Watson, leaving a vocal Mayfield writhing in the wind as he repeatedly and publicly demanded to be dealt with. The result was his eventual low-risk acquisition by Carolina, as well as some much-needed simplicity for the quarterback.

This was exposed in a subtle way on Saturday. First and foremost, it was a brief glimpse showing Panthers staff that Mayfield is a healthy version of himself on the court — something Cleveland didn’t really get to see in 2021. It was also Mayfield’s first snap translating that health into confidence, which didn’t seem like 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, Saturday’s debut was undeniably a step up and takes the anxiety out of his first live snap in a different uniform. Mayfield’s next goal will be to absorb Carolina’s offense while struggling against Darnold, although it looks like it’s already Mayfield’s job to lose.

“Different night and day, for sure,” Mayfield said after the game of his comfort level with Ben McAdoo’s offense now compared to the start of training camp. “I’m much more comfortable now. Coach McAdoo is going to give us the keys to change things on the pitch. 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 kind of carries over to our whole attack a bit.”

Carolina’s next preseason game is at the New England Patriots on August 19. Mayfield and Darnold should see more play in this game, with a starter likely to be named after this 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)

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