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Camp Observations: Baker Mayfield likes "transparent" competition


SPARTANBURG, S.C. — If you had to pick one word to describe the Panthers quarterback competition at the moment — and if you weren't going to go with "early" — the word you might choose is "civil."

Because there's an entrenched incumbent in Sam Darnold, and the team traded for a guy with a reputation for a personality in Baker Mayfield, and drafted a high-profile rookie in Matt Corral, there was perhaps an expectation of tension. There could be, and perhaps some think there ought to be, but there really isn't.

Mayfield admitted Monday he's still catching up, Darnold admitting he's only worried about what he can control, and Corral said he was "still in the learning process," so the whole thing is very face value.

Mayfield said he's appreciated how upfront the Panthers have been about the division of labor so far in training camp and how they're all hearing the plan at the same time.

Darnold worked with the ones Monday, Mayfield with the twos, and head coach Matt Rhule said they'll flip tomorrow. Corral kind of gets what's left, and he had the helm for a late three-against-three drill at the end of practice. "Get in where you fit in," is the old football cliche, and that's what all three are doing so far.

"Everything has been extremely transparent," Mayfield said. "They're telling us exactly how they're handling it. It's not being said to one person, and Sam hears another thing; it's right there in front of us and clear and concise."

Mayfield said he's "much more comfortable" than he was a week ago, but still has room to improve in terms of grasp of the offense.

"For me, it's obviously not second nature yet, but I'm trying to make those steps toward you learn the reads well enough to where it's a reaction to get through the progressions and knowing where to go," he said. "Last week was definitely slower than I would like it to be, but that's to be expected. Looking to make some steps this week with repeated calls and get better."

And while the new guy obviously would want as many reps as possible to catch up, Mayfield understood that consistency in terms of reps and the players he's repping with isn't on the table yet.

"That's something you have to deal with in camp," he said. "Camp's so much different than a game, or normal practice. You've got to take yourself through every single mental rep, even when you're not in. Take yourself through what you'd be doing based on coverage and what the defense is giving you. You can't complain because everybody's doing that. Nobody's in a rhythm. You getting pulled one way, so just take advantage of each one, each play's an opportunity, and even if you're not in, you learn from it."

— Monday was the first day in pads, and players were fortunate that it coincided with a mild, somewhat rainy day. You don't want the first one to be in the high 90s with the usual Spartanburg humidity.

It sounded a little subdued (the mandatory Guardian Caps linemen are required to wear the first two weeks) contributed to the audio quality, but there was also a noticeable energy. Players were ready for this, which Rhule realized last night when linebacker Shaq Thompson was texting him.

"Like at 10:30, Shaq was texting me about something, and said, 'I can't wait to hear the pads pop.'" Rhule said.

The biggest difference was for the linemen, as it's hard to gauge anything they're doing when they're not leaning on each other.

And for some of them, it was obvious.

There's a fine line between taking care of your own and being aggressive in practice, and first-rounder Ikem Ekwonu tried to walk it.

He was moving people in practice, his strength was evident, and he may or may not have pancaked a linebacker to the grass at one point. Coaches don't want players on the ground, and these are teammates, but that's kind of what they drafted Ekwonu to do.

— Of course, Ekwonu was still taking most of his work with the second group behind incumbent Brady Christensen, though they're starting to mix things up. For instance, Pat Elflein took the first snaps at center with the first team in 9-on-7s, but they started looking at Bradley Bozeman more with the first group during a team run period.

Bozeman is a bigger and more physical player, and could eventually separate himself now that they're in pads.

Rhule said their focus was on taking the "long view" of all these competitions for the best fit. It's reasonable to think that for the sixth overall pick in this year's draft (and the top player on their board), that's at left tackle for Ekwonu.

While there may be some online chirping about depth charts in the fifth practice of camp, these things tend to sort themselves out.

— Cornerback Jaycee Horn was back on the field in uniform Monday after being activated from the physically unable to perform list, but after individual drills, he was back around the bikes with Thompson.

Rhule said Horn's "soreness" after last week's conditioning test was more muscular than bone (last year's broken foot has healed, and he worked throughout the spring), so they wanted to make sure to give him time to get back.

— Darnold was a little frustrated with himself for a couple of balls on the ground. What appeared to be a read-option decision went wrong when Brian Burns inserted himself in the play, and the ball squirted out. On the next snap, Darnold missed on a speed-option toss to D'Onta Foreman.

He went back to the sidelines to do push-ups as his own penalty after the fact.

— While Corral is still eating leftovers in terms of practice reps, Rhule said that could change once preseason games start. The priority remains making a decision on a starter and giving that guy time to get comfortable, but Rhule alluded to the possibility of Corral getting more work as they went along.

— As expected, Rhule and the quarterbacks were asked about Monday's six-game suspension for Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, which would take him out of the opener. None of them really wanted any part of it.

Rhule said he wasn't going to comment on players on other teams, and Mayfield said it was "none of my business" what his former team was doing.

That reaction was not surprising, as training camp gets everyone in the mode of getting away from the outside world and the distractions that come with it. The Browns are expected to start Jacoby Brissett in Watson's absence.

— Mayfield drew some laughs when asked about his trash-talk via text with team leaders Thompson and cornerback Donte Jackson.

"You don't pick out the weak link; you go straight for the head," he said with a grin.

He said Thompson needed some work on that part of his game, while Jackson just tries to wear you out in those situations by being relentless.

"The thing about Shaq, he'll say something, and you say something back, and he'll just laugh," Darnold said. "He doesn't really have anything back to say, he has that one thing, and he says it to you and can't really respond to you.

"D-Jack's just loud. That's just D-Jack, though; the DB room is just really loud. When they have success, you hear about it, and when they don't, you don't."

— If you're looking for individual play highlights, running back Christian McCaffrey had a few (the run game looked good in the first padded practice), and wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. continues to make more plays as camp goes on.

View photos from the first padded practice on Monday, August 1 at camp.

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