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Carolina Panthers

Clearing up the Panthers quarterback picture 

PJ Walker, Sam Darnold

CHARLOTTE – PJ Walker will start in consecutive games for the first time in his NFL career.

Walker said Carolina interim head coach Steve Wilks gave him the news Wednesday before he took all of the first-team reps in practice ahead of a Week 7 matchup with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.

Sam Darnold's high ankle sprain, "ligament damage" in Baker Mayfield's ankle, and Matt Corral's season-ending Lisfranc injury, left Walker as the last man standing, leading to his third career start in Week 6.

Even Walker, who had fallen to fourth on the depth chart during training camp and started last week, left Sunday's game in the fourth quarter with a neck injury.

The Panthers began the week with little certainty at the quarterback position, dealing with a host of injuries and several unknowns surrounding them. But they left practice with a clearer picture of the week ahead, with Darnold back at practice and a plan to start Walker.

Walker said his first practice of the week went well, and there are benefits to starting in consecutive weeks. He said getting a second straight week helps him build chemistry with starting receivers and create a rhythm.

Having more time to build within the offense is a positive for Walker, who accumulated just 60 yards on 10-of-16 passing in last week's 24-10 loss to the Rams.

"It helps a lot, especially since I didn't get very many reps through training camp with (the first-team offense) or throughout the first couple weeks of the season," Walker said. "Just to go out there, get in that flow, get in the rhythm with the guys, it feels really good."

Darnold returned to practice, designated to return from injured reserve after his preseason ankle injury from the Bills game on Aug. 26. He has a 21-day window to practice before a move to the active roster, and Wilks said he'll be keeping a patient approach with Darnold's return.

"I don't feel comfortable, as a head coach, trying to press (Darnold)," Wilks said. "When he shows me and can communicate to me that he's ready, then we'll move forward."

Darnold said he'll be taking his recovery "day-to-day," watching out to make sure his ankle reacts to practice well.

Sam Darnold

"I think the biggest thing is making sure that it doesn't linger," Darnold said. "That after today, coming back tomorrow, making sure it's not super swollen tomorrow, just making sure it feels good every single day, day in and day out. I think that's the biggest thing."

Mayfield wasn't active for the Rams game and didn't participate in practice Wednesday after he injured his ankle in Week 5 against the 49ers.

Mayfield worked out for the trainers the Friday before heading to Los Angeles and continues to run in practice without a boot on his ankle this week. Still, Wilks is maintaining a conservative approach to Mayfield's recovery.

"He wanted to play last week," Wilks said. "I have to be smart as the head coach and make sure I'm not putting him in harm's way. … We put him out there, and all of a sudden, PJ gets hurt; (Mayfield) goes out there, he gets hurt on the second play, then the question is, 'Why'd you put him in?' So I've got to make that judgment call."

Jacob Eason, brought up from the practice squad in Los Angeles, was the only healthy option remaining when Walker fell injured against the Rams. Without pressuring for Darnold or Mayfield's premature return, Eason will be the backup again this week, Wilks said.

The Panthers will look for offensive improvement regardless of who is under center. They're at the bottom of the league in total offense, third-down conversion rate, big plays, 30th in red zone offense, and 29th in passing offense and yards per play.

They put up a season-low 203 yards against Los Angeles, including just 110 passing yards. When asked if he hopes for Walker to make more deep connections against the Buccaneers, Wilks decided to leave his answer more open-ended.

"I anticipate us trying to do whatever we can to win the football game," Wilks said. "If that's pushing the ball downfield, if that's running the ball a certain amount of times; we'll see exactly how the game flows."

View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Buccaneers this weekend.

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