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Updates from Week 4
We didn’t even need to wait for the final preseason game to get the answer to the preseason’s biggest question. Baker Mayfield will be the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. There wasn’t much to see from Mayfield in the preseason. Coming into the third game, he had only thrown seven passes. However, he got the start in this final game and went 9 of 15 for 89 yards and two touchdowns. Sam Darnold was set to take over for Mayfield but left the game with an ankle injury. The belief is that the injury is a high-ankle sprain, and Darnold is likely out until October. With the team losing rookie Matt Corral for the season, they might be in the market for a backup quarterback. PJ Walker does not appear to be the answer, throwing no touchdowns and two interceptions on 44 preseason attempts. After the final preseason game, coach Matt Rhule commented on possibly adding Cam Newton to the team. Rhule said, “Scott (Fitterer, the Panthers’ GM) and I would have to talk about that, and obviously Cam would have to weigh in on that,” Rhule said. “There’d be a lot of things we’d have to look at. You guys know my feeling on Cam. My time with him was fantastic, but it’s probably too early to say anything about that.”
Christian McCaffrey did not play a single preseason snap but will be the unquestioned starter come Week 1. All reports are that he is healthy, and the Panthers recognize him as their best offensive weapon. Chuba Hubbard showed a lot of growth this offseason, but he also split time with D’Onta Foreman 50/50 in just about every game and practice. Foreman is more of a power runner and should spell McCaffrey in the redzone. He even scored a short receiving touchdown against Buffalo on Friday. Hubbard will be more of a traditional backup to McCaffrey, filling in when McCaffrey needs a breather. Matt Rhule has praised Hubbard as an improved pass-blocker. If McCaffrey were to go down again, Hubbard would likely take the bulk of the work.
Like McCaffrey, star wide receiver DJ Moore did not play a single snap this preseason, but his role atop the depth chart is unchallenged. He and Mayfield have developed noticeable chemistry in practice, and Moore is poised for a great fantasy season. Robbie Anderson battled injuries and was only targeted once in one preseason game, but he will be the team’s second wide receiver. While Anderson wasn’t thrilled initially with the addition of Mayfield, his tune has changed recently. The real drama starts at the team’s third receiver. Before the team added Mayfield, they had already signed a favorite of his from Cleveland, Rashard Higgins. The addition of Higgins put pressure on second-year receiver Terrace Marshall Jr to step his game up. Marshall dealt with injuries all summer, and the coaches were less-than-thrilled with his recovery and ability to play through the pain. Even before the third game, two rumors began circulating: Marshall was being shopped, and the team is interested in Jets’ wide receiver Denzel Mims. Higgins caught five balls this offseason and scored a touchdown. He will be at least the fourth wide receiver on the depth chart, if not third. How the team handles the Marshall situation will determine how many other receivers end up on the roster. Last week, it appeared that Keith Kirkwood had the inside track for a spot, but Shi Smith has played well and scored on one of Baker Mayfield's touchdown passes against Buffalo. The team kept six wide receivers last year, so Kirkwood and Smith will compete with do-it-all Brandon Zylstra and veteran return man Andre Roberts.
There is no great way to describe the preseason for the Panthers’ tight ends. It was boring. The group was led by Giovanni Ricci, who was buried on the depth chart but made the most of his preseason playing time. The team’s leaders, Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble, did almost nothing and platooned with Ricci and Stephen Sullivan throughout camp. Thomas and Tremble will both make the team and split time as the team’s starting tight end. Ricci, who caught six balls in three games this August, outplayed Sullivan, but Sullivan earned more praise from coaches. Unfortunately, both Ricci and Sullivan left the Buffalo game with injuries. It will come down to the wire to see who the team’s third tight end will be, and they may even keep four, but no one at the position is likely to be fantasy relevant.
Zane Gonzalez injured himself in warmups, which was significant enough to leave him on crutches. The team considered the injury significant and will likely place him on injured reserve. At press time, Brian Johnson and Eddy Pineiro (recently released by the Jets after losing out to Greg Zuerlein) were scheduled to visit the team, as the Panthers will have a new kicker in Week 1.
The Panthers' defense has the talent to put together a good season. The issue for much of the preseason has been injuries, but many of the defensive starters played meaningful snaps against Buffalo in the final preseason game. While it is the preseason, the Panthers shut the Bills out in that game. The fewest questions fall in the secondary, and the group is very talented. Safety Jeremy Chinn picked a ball off against Buffalo and has been a leader for the team throughout training camp. Alongside Chinn, the team added Xavier Woods at safety and still has Donte Jackson, Jaycee Horn, and CJ Henderson at cornerback. It is one of the most talented secondaries in the league. The front seven is less proven. The group is led by linebacker Shaq Thompson and lineman Brian Burns, but outside of them, there are more questions than answers. Thompson even began the preseason on the PUP list but was able to practice as training camp wound to a close. Overall, the pass rush will be important this season, and the team might even add someone else to the mix before their Week 1 matchup against Cleveland.
One of the best bets in football is that when Andre Roberts is on your roster, he will handle virtually all of your punt and kickoff returns. The 13th-year vet hasn't topped 200 yards of offense since 2014 and will be playing on his 8th team in the last eight years. He keeps getting contracts because he's essentially a one-man band-aid for special teams struggles.
Updates from Week 3
Earlier this month, head coach Matt Rhule said some starters would be decided after the second preseason game. The most crucial battle of camp was at quarterback between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. So, it was a little surprising that neither Mayfield nor Darnold played in the game. Instead, PJ Walker started and played the first and third quarters, while rookie Matt Corral took over in the second and fourth. Walker has operated as the third quarterback all summer but did not have a great game, completing 8 of 15 passes for no touchdowns and two interceptions. Corral was not much better, hitting 9 of 15 passes but no interceptions. Unfortunately, Corral was hurt towards the end of the game and left the stadium in a walking boot. Corral seems to have suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury. Later on Monday, Mayfield was named the team's starting quarterback for Week 1.
Regarding the starting job, most reports believe Mayfield will be named the Week 1 starter later this week. Panther great Steve Smith weighed in on the battle, saying Mayfield was the kind of quarterback they need and calling Darnold "an excellent backup — he's going to put you to sleep, reading a book," Smith said. "We don't need any librarians. We need some people out here who are going to help us win football games."
While Christian McCaffrey did not appear in the game against the Patriots and will not play in the preseason, he was still a focal point of the week. McCaffrey is healthy and practicing, and in a joint practice with New England, he took a hard shot near the sideline. McCaffrey sprung up and spiked the ball at the defender, sparking an all-out brawl between the teams. Three players, including Chuba Hubbard, were kicked out of the practice. McCaffrey appreciates the support of his teammates, saying, "It's pretty cool. It makes my job easy knowing you've got guys in your corner. So, I'm proud to be a part of that huddle." Hubbard and D'Onta Foreman continue to split time as the backup running back, playing almost equal time with each touching the ball seven times in the game.
With almost every starter sitting on Friday, there was little to learn at the wide receiver position. There is no question that D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson will make the team and start. Terrace Marshall Jr has been battling to hold onto the third receiver spot but was dealing with an injury this week that kept him from practicing or playing. Marshall's absence gave Rashard Higgins a chance to close ground, but he reeled in just two balls for 11 yards against the Patriots. With the top four spots all but decided, the Patriots game was another audition for the many receivers vying to earn the 5th and likely last roster spot. Keith Kirkwood has been one of the team's leading receivers in each preseason game and could push for the final spot ahead of Shi Smith or Brandon Zylstra.
With injuries abounding at tight end, the Panthers have applied a committee approach this preseason. Like at wide receiver, a large group fights for a job behind Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble. Stephen Sullivan had a great week of practice but lost a crucial fumble in the game that Coach Rhule addressed in the post-game. Rhule also said of the committee, "I feel like we don't have the one, hey, this is our one tight end we are going to go to all the time. We have a bunch of guys that we feel like that can get open and catch the football, that are versatile, and that can block. It allows us to play with multiple groupings. We are still pretty vanilla right now." Finally, after a mid-week injury to Tremble, Eric Ebron, a North Carolina graduate, tweeted that the team should "Bring Him Home!"
Injuries and depth have been the story of the preseason on defense. The secondary could be one of the best in the league, but they will have to get Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson, and C.J. Henderson healthy at the same time. Horn was the only one dealing with an injury this week but could have played against New England if needed. All three should be ready for Week 1. The team has added a few depth pieces in their absence, hoping at least one would make a name for themselves. We might be seeing that with Tae Hayes. He led the defense in snaps played this week and took an interception back for a touchdown. With Duke Dawson, another recent signee, missing time, Hayes is using his playing time to land one of the last roster spots. At linebacker, Shaq Thompson was activated from the PUP list after the game and will get some practice time in before the season kicks off.
The Panthers' line has new starters at left tackle (rookie Ikem Ekwonu), center (Bradley Bozeman), and right guard (Austin Corbett). Bozeman injured his lower leg in practice and may miss a month. In his place, veteran Pat Elflein is currently running with the first team. Brady Christensen held down Ekwonu at left tackle for a few practices, but Christensen is now in the mix with Michael Jordan at left guard. Their initial grade is low but should improve once the lineup settles.
Updates from Week 2
Heading into this past week, the main story coming out of camp was the battle between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. For now, it looks like it will stay that way. Head coach Matt Rhule is sticking to his word. He won’t make any major decision until after they play the Patriots on August 19. This week in practice, neither quarterback did anything to separate themselves in a good or bad way. Both players got a chance to showcase themselves in their preseason opener against Washington. Mayfield got the first crack at it, leading the offense on a 13-play drive that ended in a field goal. He was 4-of-7 for 46 yards despite playing without standouts D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey. Darnold got his turn on the second drive after the Commanders turned the ball over. He wasted no time. Under pressure, he lofted a ball into the back corner of the endzone to Rashard Higgins for an eight-yard touchdown. He then came out for one more drive that stalled with a three and out. Rhule was pleased with his two top quarterbacks “They were both in command, Sam got us in the end zone, Baker led us down the field, so it looked like both guys played well in terms of production. We’ll go back and look and see where they are.”
P.J. Walker played most of the afternoon with an average performance, and Matt Corral played the last three possessions, where he had some rookie struggles. He finished just 1-of-9 for 11 yards. Despite the poor performance, with the help of his run game and some penalties by the Commanders, he still led the Panthers to a game-winning field goal.
Christian McCaffrey continues to look at full strength. He didn’t suit up for their preseason game, but don’t let that be any indication of how Rhule plans on using McCaffrey this season. “I’m not spending my time worrying about, ‘hey, will Christian get hurt?’” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “We are thinking about Christian in one way only — and that’s attack.” The bigger question is, who will be the running back to spell McCaffrey if he needs a breather? Hubbard appears to be the one to gobble up carries and the passing game, while Foreman will be used in situational and short-yardage situations. Hubbard was thrown into the fire last year with McCaffrey going down early but has looked good in camp so far. Rhule said, "The year before we got him, he was coming off a high ankle [injury], had the groin surgery. Last year, his contact balance was just okay. I thought later in the year, it got better and better and better. The key with him right now is without the ball - in the passing game and protections. Chuba's growth in protections has been outstanding. He can play all four special teams, he can carry the load at running back, but he can also now add in that third down dimension." Hubbard and Foreman split snaps through the first preseason game, with neither making much of an impact. With McCaffrey’s injury history, this will be a position battle to watch in the coming weeks.
D.J. Moore continues to lead the receiving group but did not make an appearance in their first preseason game due to a sore shoulder. Terrace Marshall Jr also sat out their preseason opener but will be back for practice this week. Robbie Anderson only appeared in two series, but he will be locked in as the No. 2 receiver. Rashard Higgins had three catches for 22 yards and connected with Darnold for an eight-yard touchdown catch. Shi Smith also made the most of his opportunity by having two receptions for 34 yards, both coming on the first drive with Mayfield. The battle for the last few receiver spots will be heating up this week in practice with many of them needing to shine on special teams to secure a spot.
There still isn’t much clarity on this position, as Rhule kept it brief after their first preseason game when speaking about his tight-end group. "Yeah, obviously, we're a little banged up right now. But we've got a bunch of talented guys, big, bodied guys that are making a lot of plays, contested catches for us, and so we've just got to keep working them in and just trying to figure out what our identity for offense is going to be and keep working them in as we go." The only tight end to record a reception in their preseason opener was Giovanni Ricci, who had four catches for 36 yards.
Zane Gonzalez likely has this role locked up and showed that in their first preseason game. He was 2/2 on extra points and 3/3 on field goals. Hitting a 37, 41, and eventual game-winning 45-yarder with 28 seconds left.
Several starters were out for their preseason opener, but the rest of the starting unit performed well in limited action. They held the Commanders to 6 points and 151 yards of total offense in the first half. A bigger positive was the two turnovers they forced. Cory Littleton forced a fumble, and Duke Dawson intercepted a pass when the Commanders were approaching the redzone. Despite being under-manned, Rhule was happy with the performance in their opener. “Cory Littleton, I think I've said it; I'm so excited about what he's bringing to our team. He's a guy that could really start on all four special teams. We didn't have him do that today, but he can cover. He almost played nickel; he can play linebacker. Cory's so, so versatile. You know, that's a point of emphasis for us, to get the ball out, so happy to have guys like that. Obviously, today our first-team defense, we didn't have [DE] Marquis Haynes [Sr.], we didn't really have [DE] Brian Burns much more than three or four plays. Didn't have [SAM] Shaq [Thompson], didn't have [CB] Jaycee Horn. You know, we had a lot of guys down, but the other guys stepped up and played well. Cory and [Jeremy] Chinn, and those guys were certainly a part of that." The defense still has some work to do, but the main concern was being able to stop the run this year. Damien Wilson continues to excel in practice at being that run-stopper. Xavier Woods, Jeremy Chinn, and Jaycee Horn should continue to give the defense a great floor in the secondary. The defensive line is still a work in progress in figuring out who is going to be the serious contributors. Marquis Haynes Sr. had a serious injury scare but looks healthy. They still could look to bring someone in over the next couple of weeks to sure up some depth here.
One of the best bets in football is that when Andre Roberts is on your roster, he will handle virtually all your punt and kickoff returns. The 13th-year vet hasn't topped 200 yards of offense since 2014 and will be playing on his eigth team in the last eight years. He keeps getting contracts because he's essentially a one-man band-aid for special teams struggles.
Updates from Week 1
The talk of Panthers camp this entire summer will be the quarterback battle between Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield. To this point, no one has taken a big lead, and head coach Matt Rhule said they would split reps with the first team 50/50 until a decision is made. Darnold has looked sharp and is making good decisions, but nothing about his game is exciting. Mayfield is picking up the offense fast, despite being one week behind Darnold in new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s system. By the end of Week 1, Mayfield is probably the favorite to start, though Darnold is playing with more urgency. Rhule said he would not decide on any position until after the second preseason game. “I’m not putting a timetable on the quarterback position until after we get back from the Patriots week. The Patriots week is a true litmus test for us. That will really show us where guys are.” Rookie Matt Corral is impressing everyone with his work ethic, being first on the field every day of camp so far, but has been mostly learning from the veterans to this point.
For the second straight season, Christian McCaffrey is back, and everyone is excited to have him on the field. The focus this year is on keeping him healthy. He was already given a few rest days and is not expected to play much in the preseason. McCaffrey spoke highly of the new training program “I think those days off are important. You’ve got to make sure on those days off that you’re doing everything to get ready for the next day. That’s the purpose of it. So, it’s an off day, but you’re still working. You’re doing a lot of stuff with the trainers. You’re doing stuff with the strength coaches – strength stuff, flexibility stuff, to get ready for that next day. But I feel great.” McCaffrey has been the focus of camp, but Chuba Hubbard is showing growth in his second year. Of Hubbard, Rhule said, “Chuba’s had an excellent camp,” Rhule said. “The key with him right now is how good he is without the ball—in the passing game and protections. And I think Chuba’s growth in protections has been outstanding.”
Much like he did as a rookie, second-year receiver Terrace Marshall Jr is off to a great start in camp. He linked up with Mayfield and Darnold for impressive touchdowns and looks like he could be a real weapon in the redzone. Coach Rhule spoke highly of Marshall and his effort to this point, saying, "We kind of dialed his reps down," Rhule said. "He's been playing so hard, his reps were high, and his GPS was high. It's great that he made a play as a result." This was after Marshall made the longest completion of camp to that point. D.J. Moore is playing well, as expected, and Robbie Anderson made arguably the best play of camp with Baker Mayfield, connecting on a pinpoint post route for a touchdown.
For a team that did not really use their tight ends much last year, they are getting everyone involved in practices. Tommy Tremble, Colin Thompson, Giovanni Ricci, Josh Babicz, and Ian Thomas have all shown some big-play ability. Still, with everyone playing, it is unclear who will make the team and what the rotation might look like in the regular season.
The Panthers have already dealt with a myriad of injuries, most minor but at least one significant. At cornerback, Rashaan Melvin retired on the camp’s first day, while Jaycee Horn started on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Horn was able to play by the end of the first week, but they still added more depth to the position. A college teammate of C.J. Henderson, Duke Dawson, was signed after Melvin retired. Henderson sustained a minor ankle injury and is being worked back in slowly. A bright spot of the secondary is safety Jeremy Chinn. He is playing well, and new safety Xavier Woods is tutoring him like Harrison Smith helped Woods in Minnesota. In the front seven, star linebacker Shaq Thompson is also on the PUP and is not expected to appear in camp this year. Frankie Luvu, Damien Wilson, and Cory Littleton are taking almost all starter snaps at linebacker while Thompson is coaching them on every play. It should be noted that Wilson is facing legal troubles in Texas and could face suspension, though he will not comment on the situation. While coach Rhule said he is happy with the current defensive lineman, he also admitted the team was always looking to upgrade. This search may become a priority as Marquis Haynes suffered an apparently serious knee injury.