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PJ Walker trying to "play free"

PJ Walker

CHARLOTTE – PJ Walker can explain well what's gone well for him the past two weeks.

Heading into this fourth week as the Panthers' starting quarterback, Walker said Wednesday he feels like he can "play free."

"Just going out there, playing my game, knowing the coaches trust me, knowing my teammates trust me; that's really it," Walker said when asked to describe what playing free looked like for him. "Just going out there and not worrying about making mistakes. Just going out there, playing football."

That mentality has worked out thus far for Walker, who didn't appear to have a strong shot of making the 53-man roster when Carolina rolled into training camp — with three other signal callers apparently putting a job out of reach for the former XFL quarterback.

He got to this position partly because he didn't waver as injuries sidelined Matt Corral and Sam Darnold in the preseason, and Baker Mayfield in Week 5, opening up the door for Walker to get his first chance to start this season at the Rams.

And this week, Walker is preparing for his fourth consecutive start for the upcoming trip to Cincinnati. Already this season, he has outdueled Tom Brady, and his jaw-dropping 62-yard Hail Mary connection to DJ Moore in Atlanta earned a shoutout on Twitter from Patrick Mahomes.

Walker put up one of his top statistical performances in that overtime loss to the Falcons, accumulating 317 yards on 19-of-36 passing with one touchdown and one interception.

Walker has steadily improved from his first start at Los Angeles, where the Panthers opted to go conservative and hold off on downfield throws. This season, he has gone 50-of-80 passing for 614 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception in his four appearances.

"I think anything in life is all about time," interim coach Steve Wilks said. "We've seen over the last couple of weeks that with (Walker) putting the time in, with us as coaches giving him the opportunity to be able to perform with the game plan, he's shown that he can handle certain things. I'm very pleased."

Walker doesn't have enough attempts this season to qualify for a spot in the league's quarterback rankings (he would need to throw 39 times this Sunday in Cincinnati to qualify after Week 9). But if Walker were eligible to be ranked after Week 8, his 93.4 passer rating would land 11th in the league, just behind a couple of guys named Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson.

"I go back to gaining the trust of the guys around me; that's where it starts," Walker said. "It starts with the trust, and it gives me the confidence and the freedom to go out there and play free."

PJ Walker

Despite any head-turning heroics or statistical strength, Walker hasn't been told he is guaranteed the starting job past this week. He's far from a perfect quarterback, and the pick-six he threw to Atlanta's Lorenzo Carter just before halftime last Sunday showed part of the reason he hadn't been an obvious answer at the position to this point.

Mayfield returned to practice from an ankle injury last week and is currently backing up Walker. Darnold has less than a week to return to the active roster after a preseason high ankle sprain landed him on injured reserve. Darnold was designated to return two weeks ago and is still in the "process" of healing, Wilks said. Corral won't see the field this season as he recovers from a season-ending Lisfranc injury.

Wilks has reiterated sticking with Walker as the starter will remain a week-to-week decision, and Walker said he likes it that way.

"For me, that's the best thing you could ask for," Walker said when asked if he had been given any assurance the starting job was his. "I've got a chip on my shoulder every time I step on the football field, and that's how I'm going to carry it moving forward."

Check out the best photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Bengals this weekend.

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