CHARLOTTE — Make no mistake, the Panthers made the deal for Baker Mayfield for the present.
But the addition of the former No. 1 overall pick and the competition he creates with Sam Darnold for the starting job here could impact rookie Matt Corral and the Panthers' future, as well.
Both Mayfield and Darnold (along with PJ Walker) are in the final years of their contracts, meaning Corral is the only one bound to the team past the 2022 season.
And with an apparent competition between two veterans for the starting job, it allows Corral a chance to breathe, and learn, and grow without the immediate pressure of expectations.
They were hoping to develop a young (and cheap) one when they drafted Corral, as part of the overarching plan to "stabilize" the quarterback room. Trading for Mayfield was another step in that process. And that next step makes it more likely that this year could serve as an apprenticeship for Corral.
General manager Scott Fitterer even referred to the third-round pick as "the young guy in the room learning" during his press conference Tuesday, though he wouldn't go so far as to declare this a red-shirt year for the rookie.
"We'll see how it goes, how it all plays out," Fitterer said. "The one good thing for Matt, there is a transition for him from a college offense he was in to an NFL offense, especially a (Ben) McAdoo offense, where there's a lot of verbiage. This will allow him the chance to really learn at his own pace, learn from a couple of veterans in that room in Sam and Baker, and having PJ in that room as well.
"And when it's time for him to get out there and play, he can get out there and earn that job if he's ready. But it's going to be on him to learn and play well when he gets there. Right now, our focus is to get all of our quarterbacks up to speed so we can play good quality football at that position."
In the short term, that likely means either Mayfield or Darnold will likely end up playing, which could be the best situation for Corral, competitive pride aside.
Too often in the league, rookie quarterbacks are rushed onto the field without the chance to develop. Since there are more teams looking for quarterbacks than qualified quarterbacks, the law of supply and demand dictates that pace.
But for the teams with the luxury of being able to wait to play the young ones, the benefits are obvious. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and he did little but watch Brett Favre for the first three years of his career. Likewise, Patrick Mahomes got a year to sit in Kansas City. Clearly, the Panthers don't have a Favre (or maybe even an Alex Smith) blocking Corral's path, but there is less of an immediate need for him — unless they get to camp and he's clearly the best option.
In June, Corral admitted he had a lot to learn, saying "the process is just beginning." And with veterans around him, it could also cut into the number of reps he gets in camp, meaning the bulk of his education will happen in the classroom for now.
Corral's ability to do all the things after the snap are clear. His arm is strong. His release is quick. He's got a knack for making plays and leading, things he showed on the field at Ole Miss. But learning all the intricacies of McAdoo's system (which relies heavily on pre-snap reads) will take time. And things as simple as getting a team in and out of a huddle (which he never really had to do in college) require repetitions to master.
With Mayfield on board, Corral should now have a little more time to learn, if not the on-field reps.
The added layer of complexity for this situation is based on economics. Fitterer said Tuesday the plan is to delay any decisions about the contractual future of any of these quarterbacks until later this season. With Mayfield and Darnold 17 games away from free agency, there's no rush to commit now. If one of them runs away with the job and plays well, it sets them up to negotiate. The Panthers could do a deal later in the season, or could still use the franchise tag if they can't reach a long-term agreement.
If they don't, Corral represents a cost-effective option, as his four-year contract will be worth around $5 million total. To put it in context, his cap number this year should be less than $1 million, in a year when the total cap is $208.2 million (less than half of one percent of the total cap).
Fitterer knows from his days in Seattle that a third-round pick on a rookie-scale contract is a valuable commodity — if he can play.
Giving Corral the time and space to learn could enhance the chances of that, and gives the Panthers some flexibility in 2023, when they have hardly any money at all committed to the position. (And if none of the current quarterbacks happen to be the long-term answer, that means they have clean books, which will help in finding the next one.)
The best-case scenario for every team is to know who their quarterback is, and to have him secured. The next best option is to have options, and bringing Mayfield in gives them more, now and in the future.