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Carolina Panthers

Why the Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers had checked off a lot of boxes this offseason.

All but that one, really, and that one came Wednesday.

With the trade for former Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Panthers gave themselves an immediate shot of enhanced credibility after an offseason that saw them make significant improvements to the rest of the roster.

They're still going to compete for the starting job in training camp, and there are plenty of questions to be answered about the future.

But this clearly provides a reason for optimism, after an offseason that included a lot of positive steps.

They knew they needed to make the offensive line better. They made it better.

They knew they needed to add a couple of solid starters to the defense. They added them.

They knew they needed to continue to improve on special teams. They re-signed two reliable pieces and added a punter and a returner who are among the league's best.

They knew they needed to firm up a coaching staff. They brought in a number of veteran assistants to add a certain gravity to the place.

When you go down the list, adding a playoff-caliber quarterback was the last piece of unfinished business.

Mayfield, the former No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft, led the Browns not only to the playoffs, but a playoff win following the 2020 season. The Browns hadn't made the playoffs since 2002, and they hadn't won a postseason game since 1994.

For the Panthers, the drought has been much shorter, as they were last in the playoffs following the 2017 season. But since then, they've been hampered by instability at the quarterback position, which began with Cam Newton's health and continued through a coaching change and a parade of moves that included Newton again.

Mayfield, who still has to pass a physical Wednesday, is only under contract for one season, so it's still not a long-term answer. The Panthers traded up to draft Matt Corral in April, but that was done with the future in mind rather than the present. Sam Darnold and PJ Walker remain on the roster, and the job hasn't been promised to anyone, creating a competitive situation in training camp.

Baker Mayfield

Wednesday's deal also took a step toward fixing things for the now, which was the emphasis all offseason.

After starting 13 different offensive lines in 17 weeks last year, the Panthers spent their first-round pick on Ikem Ekwonu, giving them the kind of pedigree at the position they hadn't added since 2008 and the kind of talent they haven't at the position since Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season.

Ekwonu was the capper to the needed offensive line makeover, as guard Austin Corbett came in the opening moments of the free agent market, and center Bradley Bozeman followed a few days later.

But that was just the beginning of a series of moves designed to make this team competitive now and in the future.

Extending star wide receiver DJ Moore was a significant step (especially in light of a series of exploding receiver contracts), keeping a home-grown talent in place and rewarding a player who excelled despite less-than-ideal circumstances.

Bringing back cornerback Donte Jackson was also important for multiple reasons, including to lend guidance to Jaycee Horn as the 2021 first-rounder returns to health.

Signing established veterans such as safety Xavier Woods, defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, and linebackers Damien Wilson and Cory Littleton stabilized thin spots.

The Panthers finally found a kicker last year in Zane Gonzalez, and they kept him, along with long snapper JJ Jansen. Then they added the NFL's All-Decade punter in Johnny Hekker, plus return man Andre Roberts, who's been to three of the last four Pro Bowls.

Bringing in coaching veterans such as Steve Wilks, James Campen, Ben McAdoo, Chris Tabor, and Paul Pasqualoni improved the depth of the staff, lending experienced eyes they might have lacked in the past.

That's a lot of stuff. But without a quarterback you can trust to get you to the playoffs, or to do something once you're there, all of that work could be in vain.

Mayfield's walking in the door with something to prove, as well. He's never lacked for motivation, but being replaced in Cleveland by Deshaun Watson has given him an added edge. He's also coming off a down year after playing through a (non-throwing) shoulder injury last year.

Making this move doesn't make the Panthers a favorite in the NFC; there are still too many established teams, including one in the division. This is still a young Panthers team. They're thin enough at enough spots that one or two small bits of bad luck can make a big difference.

But making a trade like this can make an even bigger one.

With all the other moves they made this offseason, adding a quarterback who has won in the postseason makes the postseason a more attainable goal.

That could make all the other work worth it.

Mayfield played for Cleveland from 2018-21, leading the Browns to a playoff appearance in 2020.

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