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Is Matt Rhule Making Mistake Not Naming Starting QB, LT Sooner?

  • Jack McKessy
  • August 8, 2022
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When putting together an offense in professional football, it’s important to give clarity early on some of the most important positions on that side of the ball. About a week and a half into training camp, it’s apparent that Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule didn’t get that memo.

As of Monday morning, Rhule has not made any announcement about who will be the Panthers’ starting quarterback nor about who will start at left tackle. For now, Sam Darnold—in his second year with the Panthers—and Baker Mayfield—in his first—are still battling it out and splitting first-team reps under center. Meanwhile, rookie and sixth overall pick Ikem Ekwonu primarily has been taking reps with the second team while second-year lineman Brady Christensen has gotten most of the first-team looks.

Rhule has already made clear that he won’t be making any “major decisions” on who will be Carolina’s Week 1 starters until after the team’s second preseason game against the New England Patriots. That won’t be for another week and a half, and even then, the head coach hasn’t committed to making any final decisions by that exact time. At best, the Panthers will have just over three weeks of clarity on who will be starting at two of the most crucial positions on offense. Otherwise, they’ll be entering their last preseason game without any more certainty. Instead of being able to rest their starters to end the preseason, they might have to run the risk of injury to ensure their first-string guys all get some in-game action together before the regular season begins.

As far as the quarterback battle goes, the logical conclusion to draw is that Mayfield will be the Panthers’ starter come September. Darnold had what was perhaps the worst year of an already disappointing NFL career in his debut season with the Panthers in 2021. For the third time in his career, he finished with a completion rate below 60%. He threw just nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions and had a career-low passer rating of 71.9. If Carolina really believed in Darnold after such an abysmal season, would they really have traded a fifth-round pick for Mayfield?

That said, Mayfield is coming off of a disappointing season himself. He was one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks in 2021, often holding onto the ball too long and getting sacked, making poor decisions on throws or—worst of all—seemingly refusing to throw to receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Joking aside, some of that could be chalked up to Mayfield’s non-throwing shoulder injury, as he’s had his share of success when on the field and fully healthy. But the down year in 2021 is still a bit concerning and likely all that’s holding him back from the clear edge over Darnold. Given Mayfield’s track record of relative success and Darnold’s complete lack thereof, it’s fair to assume Mayfield will still come out on top whenever Rhule is so moved to make an announcement.

Our own Damian Parson was at Panthers training camp last week and felt like Mayfield had a clear edge earlier in the week, but he was still impressed with Darnold’s performance on Friday. Either way, it would behoove Carolina to come up with an answer on their most important position as soon as they can rather than dragging out one of the NFL’s few quarterback competitions.

Much of what was true in the quarterback battle seems to also be true in the duel for the Panthers’ starting left tackle job. There seems to be a clear answer as to who Carolina envisioned starting at left tackle in 2022 after they used a top-10 pick on Ekwonu. The Panthers’ sixth overall pick made the standout left tackle out of NC State the first tackle off the board. Teams don’t often use first-round picks—let alone top-10 picks—on a player they don’t see becoming the starter at their given position.

Still, like Darnold from the quarterback position, it’s Christensen who has more experience with the team and specifically the offensive line as a six-game starter for the Panthers at tackle. As Rhule said, Ekwonu is the rookie that needs to prove himself worthy of replacing the incumbent for the starting left tackle job. At the same time though, Ekwonu should be the clear favorite and there’s a much easier solution for this positional battle as opposed to that of the quarterbacks; the Panthers can slide Christensen in at left guard.

As clear-cut as the battles for starting quarterback and left tackle seem to be for the Panthers, their head coach doesn’t quite see it that way. After a little over a week of training camp, there’s no more clarity about either position than there was when training camp began. Rhule needs to really start providing some of that clarity—and soon—if he doesn’t want his team to feel the adverse effects of a lack of chemistry amongst his starters when the regular season begins in just over a month.

Written By

Jack McKessy