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Carolina Panthers

Camp Observations: Baker Mayfield starting to feel more comfortable


SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Baker Mayfield is still learning his way through the Panthers offense, but he's starting to figure out his way around the locker room.

Mayfield said Monday he felt like he had a better grasp of things, but he couldn't get ahold of the mini-basketballs linebacker Shaq Thompson was throwing at him to try to distract him during his the press conference.

Those two have developed a quick bond (and Mayfield caught a ride from Thompson to camp two weeks ago), and you can tell Mayfield's personality is beginning to emerge.

"Excuse me, Shaq, I'm trying to be a professional over here," Mayfield said in the middle of an answer about a different topic. "We're trying to conduct a nice business here."

The laughs are coming more easily for Mayfield now, which follows with his grasp of the playbook.

"It's starting to slowly come out," he said with a grin when asked if we were beginning to see his true persona. "On the practice field, trying to make sure I handle my business, but in the locker room and stuff like that, it's about having fun with these guys. That's why we're down here at Wofford and training camp to push each other and play.

"Behind the scenes, we're having a lot of fun, having some friendly competitions, to bring out the best in each other."

The quarterback competition continues, of course, and head coach Matt Rhule said they wouldn't make any declarations until at least after the joint practices with the Patriots next week. He's continued to say, "when we know, we'll know," but he's also cognizant of the need for whichever quarterback ends up starting against the Browns on Sept. 11 to have enough time with the ones to get more comfortable and develop a rhythm.

Mayfield and Sam Darnold continue to alternate work with the starters, which presents a better chance to make plays but also a greater challenge against a first defense that is fast and talented, particularly in the secondary.

But Mayfield already looks more settled when working with the ones than during the first week of camp, which is to be expected. He also realizes that when he's with the ones, he gets to throw to DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson, which helps (like on the bomb he threw to Anderson early in camp).

"Obviously, they're both really good at their craft," Mayfield said. "DJ's a guy, just give him a chance. He's a contested-catch guy, real physical at the top of his routes, can separate, and strong with his hands. Robbie, great routes, and just being able to separate with his speed and trusting that he's going to run by people. The cliched thing of, 'if he's even, he's leaving,' that's true of Robbie. So just getting to know these guys and continuing to grow in it."

— While the questions about the status of the competition will continue to come, Rhule said they're still working through how to divide reps in Saturday's first preseason game at Washington.

He said if either Mayfield or Darnold plays, both will, and that he wanted to make sure rookie Matt Corral and PJ Walker each got chances. But he also said they'd likely play "three or four" quarterbacks against the Commanders, so things are still being sorted out.

Rhule said the plan all along is that they'd likely carry three quarterbacks into the regular season.

— Speaking of reps, first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu is beginning to get more of them with the first line at left tackle. Again, this is as expected as camp goes on, since they used the sixth overall pick on him for a reason.

Rhule said they would "be more aggressive giving him reps" as he continues to work to earn the starting job. Incumbent Brady Christensen opened camp with the first group, and has worked at both left tackle and left guard, splitting reps there with Michael Jordan.

Of course, that also means Ekwonu spends more time blocking Brian Burns, which is good news and bad for the rookie. Burns got past Ekwonu with a couple of spin moves Monday morning (one inside, one outside) during one-on-one drills. But Burns does that to a lot of people, and handling top pass-rushers is part of what will be expected of Ekwonu if he starts (Cleveland's Myles Garrett awaits in the opener).

— With training camp in its third and final week, some dings are stacking up.

Defensive end Marquis Haynes Sr. was on the practice field but in a red jersey Monday, alongside cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. and wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr..

Haynes went down in Saturday's practice, but tests on his knee revealed no damage, and Haynes will be day-to-day for a bit. But it wasn't nearly as bad as it looked when he was carted off.

Also Monday, tight end Colin Thompson went to the tent to get checked out, with the athletic training staff looking at his left foot or ankle.

— Safety Sean Chandler got on the turnover board, picking off Darnold during some two-minute work late in practice.

— A good portion of Monday's work was devoted to the run game, and this just in, Christian McCaffrey remains good at football.

McCaffrey's burst is evident, and nothing against the rest of the depth chart (and they actually have good depth in D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard); there's a noticeable difference when McCaffrey's out there.

— Offensive lineman Dennis Daley and tight end Stephen Sullivan were excused from practice and not present.

— For all the wrinkles the Panthers are working on in camp, it's still interesting to see punter Johnny Hekker working on fakes.

That's a big part of the All-Decade team punter's game, as he's a career 14-of-23 passer for 186 yards, with a touchdown and an interception (82.9 passer rating).

— Wide receiver Shi Smith continues to make plays in practice, but his position is going to be one of the most interesting to watch as they pick the final roster. With return man Andre Roberts and special teamer Brandon Zylstra on hand, there is a lot of competition for the final spot or spots, with C.J. Saunders and Rashard Higgins in the mix as well.

— The Panthers are a week away from having to make their first cuts, as they have to get the roster from 90 to 85 by next Tuesday. Cuts are more gradual this year, with the league requiring teams to get to 80 by Aug. 23, before getting to the regular season limit of 53 by Aug. 30.

View photos from Monday's practice as the Panthers returned to practice after a day off on Sunday.

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