CLEVELAND, Ohio — “There’s no downside to Carolina.”
That’s what Ellis Williams told me about the Browns sending Baker Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers to win him over by the fourth or fifth round.
Williams should be a familiar name to many cleveland.com readers. The Panthers hitter was part of our Browns coverage team for two years before taking a job with the Charlotte Observer early last season.
So Williams saw Mayfield in Cleveland and the Panthers in 2021. It’s a unique perspective, which is why I called him. For the past three seasons, the Panthers have been 5-12, 5-11, and 5-11. They’ve gone through four QBs: Sam Darnold, Teddy Bridgewater, Kyle Allen and Cam Newton. Carolina head coach Matt Ruhle is fighting for his job after 10 wins in his first two seasons with the Panthers.
The Panthers have hired several former Browns assistant coaches: James Campen (offensive line), Chris Tabor (special teams), Al Holcomb (linebackers) and Steve Wilks (defensive backs). New offensive coordinator is Ben McAdoo, a former head coach of the New York Giants.
And yes, old friend and Baker Buddy Rashard Higgins is in Carolina.
There’s an element of desperation in Carolina. As a former Baylor head coach, Ruhle needs to at least get close to the playoffs. That is the goal for 2022.
None of this should be new to Mayfield, who joined the Browns after they were 4-44 the last three seasons. Despair. Change of coach. A new squad. He’s been through all that and more.
“How many head coaches did Baker have?” Williams asked me.
“That’s five in five years,” I said.
“He used to have to learn new attacks quickly,” Williams said. “That will help him here.”
MAYFIELD VS. DARNOLD
“The team says it’s an open contest between Darnold and Baker,” Williams said. “But I expect Baker to start. He’s better than Darnold.”
The Panthers are also counting on Mayfield, otherwise why trade for him with training camp just weeks away?
Mayfield was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. Darnold was the Jets’ No. 3 pick. Darnold was never able to move much in his career. Meanwhile, two of Mayfield’s four seasons in Cleveland have been good.
The Panthers also have rookie Matt Corral, a third-round pick from Mississippi. They have PJ Walker and Davis Cheeks – giving them a total of five people in their QB room. But the Panthers are counting on a highly motivated Mayfield in the final season of his contract to revitalize the franchise.
As for Darnold, he has a 6-17 record as a starter in his last two seasons. Most troubling is his 18 TD passes versus 24 interceptions. That’s why the Panthers made the deal. I heard the two teams agreed the terms of the deal weeks ago, with the Browns paying $10.5 million out of Mayfield’s $18.8 million salary.
The last part was Carolina revised Mayfield’s contract. The QB agreed to forego $3.5 million in salary. He has a chance to win this back in incentives based on games played.
Carolina Mayfield ended up acquiring for a mid-round draft pick and paying just $4.8 million of his salary.
“It’s a good deal for the Panthers,” Williams said. “They really have nothing to lose by giving up so little.”
IT’S NOT JACKSONVILLE
“The team has some talent,” Williams said. “DJ Moore (93 receivers) is an Amari Cooper type receiver, maybe better. Christian McCaffrey (Pro Bowl running back) is healthy. The offensive line is better. That’s not Jacksonville (the Jags were 3-14 last season).”
The Panthers ranked 30th in overall offense and 29th in points scored (17.9 per game) last season. McCaffrey has only played 10 games over the past two seasons. In 2018-19, he averaged 1,245 rushing yards and caught an average of 110 passes per season. That’s right, a running back who catches 100+ balls in a season.
The Panthers have invested in their offensive line. They made left tackle Ikem Ekwonu of North Carolina State the No. 6 draft pick. They signed veteran free center Bradley Bozeman and guard Austin Corbett. Yes, this is the same Corbett who was voted second round leader by former Browns GM John Dorsey in 2018. As a rookie, he played little. The Browns gave up on him a year later and sold Corbett to the Rams. He became an instant starter at Guard and played on a Super Bowl-winning team.
He signed a 3-year, $26 million contract with Carolina.
“The offensive line won’t be as good as Baker in Cleveland,” Williams said. “But it should still be pretty good.”
The Browns line was hit hard by injuries to Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr. last season. Mayfield has been sacked a career-high 43 times.
Carolina’s defense ranked #2 in yards allowed. It’s a talented unit.
“That’s why most of the fans here are excited,” Williams said. “You know, if Baker improves offense, the Panthers have a chance to be a much better team.”
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