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Baker Mayfield ready for "fresh start" with Panthers

Baker Mayfield

CHARLOTTE — Baker Mayfield knows he's going to have to come here and fight for a job.

And he knows what's at stake for him if he wins it.

And he knows what he's supposed to say about external motivation. But he can also read a calendar.

With the paperwork submitted to the league making his trade from the Browns to the Panthers official as of Monday night, Mayfield can get to work finding a place here, meeting his new teammates, and then competing for that job and the chance to start in the regular-season opener on Sept. 11 against Cleveland.

"I'm not going to sit here and be a robot and tell you that's not one I've marked on the calendar already," Mayfield said. "One, that's not who I am. To me, it's about winning games. Whoever we have marked on the schedule, I'm going to try to win. Obviously, this one has a little more history and personal meaning, but for me, it's about winning and setting the tone for the rest of the year, and however I can help this team do that, I'm going to do."

Asked if he was the kind of person who held grudges, Mayfield grinned and said: "I try not to."

But the reality is he knows this move to the Panthers is a chance at something bigger than any one game, no matter who it's against.

It's a chance at a new beginning, with a team he described as "right there on the cusp," and an opportunity to rebuild his reputation in a contract year. Mayfield had to adjust his current contract to get the deal done, and the Panthers sent a conditional 2024 fifth-rounder to the Browns (which could become a fourth if he hits certain playing time percentages).

But it appears to be worth it at the moment, both for a guy with something to prove and a team that already improved most of the rest of the roster this offseason.

"There was a little bit of sacrifice on all three fronts, between Cleveland, Carolina, and myself," Mayfield said. "To me, it's ready for a fresh start first and foremost. I'm extremely grateful for the four years I had in Cleveland, it's a great football town. It's the start of my career, however long, God willing, it will be. I'm thankful for it.

"A lot of ups and downs, a lot of things I learned, but when it came down to it, it was wanting a fresh start, wanting to be with a coach and a GM that truly wanted me, . . . and just wanting the same thing, and that's to win football games. "

Mayfield had some degree of conversations with Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer in advance of the deal going through, and he'll get his playbook Tuesday to begin the quick process of learning a new system in the two weeks before the start of camp.

He'll also gather with a few players in Charlotte before he reports to Wofford on July 26, giving him a few days to catch up with some new teammates. The connections have already been helped along by quarterback Sam Darnold. Mayfield said Darnold got his number and reached out the day after the deal was agreed to last week, and immediately began helping him make connections and plan for the informal workouts.

The potential for some awkwardness with a quarterback he got to know during the 2018 pre-draft process (Mayfield went first, Darnold third) is the kind of thing you can't deny, but Mayfield said, "I think any of that has already been squashed."

"Sam reached out, got my number first," Mayfield said. "We've been talking about how to get the guys together the last minute before camp. It's been great. Sam just wants to win. That's just who he is. Our personalities might be different, but that doesn't mean we don't have the same goal, and that's to win and help this team out.

"I'm really looking forward to being in that room with him and just challenging each other, and elevating each other."

In the next few days, Mayfield and his wife Emily will continue a hectic search for accommodations.

At least when they get here, there will be a few familiar faces awaiting them.

Baker Mayfield, Christian McCaffrey

Mayfield's known Christian McCaffrey since 2015. He and DJ Moore prepped for the Combine together. He played with Rashard Higgins and Austin Corbett in Cleveland, and knows offensive line coach James Campen from his time there.

But mostly, this is a crash course in a new offense, one Mayfield compared to his days at Oklahoma (where he won a Heisman) for its reliance on quick decisions and putting the ball in playmakers' hands. The fact he went to both Texas Tech and Oklahoma as a walk-on isn't lost on Mayfield, and he sees the parallel to his current situation.

"For me, it's pretty familiar," he said of having to compete for a job. "Obviously, the NFL is different than college, but walking on twice, and having to go through that process, you level the playing field. You compete against other guys, and you build confidence in yourself. It's very similar to when I left Texas Tech to go to Oklahoma. They had one of my best friends, Trevor Knight, who had just won the Sugar Bowl, was the MVP, he was going to be a sophomore. I decided to transfer there, knowing there was going to be competition, and it wasn't going to be easy.

"It's about betting on yourself and believing in that, and giving it your all. And just trying to be a good teammate and help everybody win."

Also on the list of things Mayfield is aware of is that his reputation can precede him. He has a large personality. He burns hot. That's part of what propels him.

Rashard Higgins, Baker Mayfield

"There's always a preconceived notion about anybody, maybe with myself a little more so than others," he said. "But I just look forward to getting in the building and letting guys know how much I truly love football and how much fun I have doing it and the process. So some of that just comes with time; some of it comes with having lunch and talking to guys, not during practice. Every situation is different, and I've always tried to be a guy who gravitates toward others and elevates their game and who they are, and just try to poke fun at people and bring the best out of them. That's just how I've always been. It just takes being around the building for that to happen."

Asked how he'll communicate that to new people with little first-hand background with him, and what they'll see when they show up to work, he was equally clear.

"All about ball," he said. "I love playing this game, and I truly have fun doing it, and I'm going to be myself while doing it. I'm going to challenge you, I'm going to challenge myself, and they'll see the real version of me. I'm someone that if I'm on your team, I'll take a bullet for you, and that's just the way it goes. That's how I've always been, and that's how I quickly gain the respect of my teammates wherever I'm at."

Mayfield struggled with a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury most of 2021, but said he's been throwing for months and has been cleared to go from the start of camp. Spending the bulk of last season rehabbing that shoulder helped with the recovery time from his January surgery, and he's excited about getting to work. He also has some important background on Spartanburg, as he has an aunt, uncle and two cousins who lived there before they moved to Charlotte, so he knows he's going back to his roots of playing in a sweltering South.

"Already started hydrating," he joked.

Baker Mayfield

But he knows when he gets there, the serious business begins.

Mayfield has been willing to take chances with the ball in his career (56 career interceptions, against 92 career touchdowns). He has also shown an ability to make plays.

As a rookie in 2018, he led the Browns to a Week 14 win over the Panthers, a game highlighted by a 51-yard touchdown to Jarvis Landry, which he recalled was "mostly improvisation." After being flushed out of the pocket to his left, he trusted Landry to get behind the coverage (though the coverage wasn't bad).

"Number one, it's almost impossible to try to trick Luke Kuechly any time," Mayfield said when asked about that game. "He's calling out plays left and right. He was fun to play against, but it was also a nightmare. But I just remember escaping the pocket on the left side and watching Jarvis, he was our number three receiver on the inside, just basically do a little scramble drill. He had the guy's back turned. That's one of the things, I try to bring the trust of my teammates and laying it up there for him. And it happened to be one of my better throws, and he made a great play on it.

"But yeah, giving a guy a chance. When a play breaks down, it's not always going to be how you drew it up. It's a matter of eliminating mistakes and making the most of them."

Mayfield also created some history with the Browns, leading them to a playoff win after the 2020 season, the franchise's first postseason victory since 1994. His numbers were down last year, and Cleveland traded for his replacement. So he's walking in here with something to prove, and a path to prove it.

"I want to be a starter, I want to be a franchise-level quarterback for years, and hopefully, it's here in Charlotte," he said. "But for me, it was about competing, getting to a place where the competition is going to make me get better. And I want a level playing field, and I want to elevate the guys around me and be the best version of myself.

"I know it's not going to be easy by any means, I've got to go earn it, but I'm looking forward to the competition and the challenge."

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