Matt Rhule's team entered camp with several questions, particularly at quarterback. The Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield after weeks of speculation linking the former No. 1 overall pick to Carolina. Meanwhile, incumbent Sam Darnold and rookie Matt Corral entered camp hoping to maintain the status quo; Darnold as the starter, and Corral looking for as many reps as possible.
Here's what we learned during training camp:
1. The QB competition isn't over
Rhule hasn't declared a winner but training camp gave everyone a ringside seat to the quarterback bout. When the team released its first preseason depth chart this week, Darnold and Mayfield were listed as the squad's No. 1 quarterback.
Even though it appears Mayfield will eventually win the position, Rhule isn't tipping his hand just yet.
"I think it's an ongoing process," Rhule said. "When we know, we know. If we knew for sure, we'd go on and say it ... I think it's been healthy for our team. The staff and I think it's been done the right way. I'm pleased with where it's at."
Rhule said this week that Mayfield continued to improve and make jumps despite getting his first look at the playbook after joining the team in July. The Panthers traded for him to upgrade the position after Darnold's struggles in 2021. He's the more accomplished player to this point in their respective careers, having thrown 92 touchdowns to Darnold's 54.
Both quarterbacks are expected to play against Washington. Traditionally, the third (now second) preseason game has been when teams give starters the most playing time. Rhule might have an idea of where he's going but he hasn't said anything publicly about it.
"I'm pleased with where it's at but I'm not ready to name a guy yet," Rhule said. "Every day brings new evidence, every day brings new insight. They're both competitors. If one guy has a strong day, the other guy bounces back the next day."
2. Christian McCaffrey is healthy ... and so is almost everyone else
Knock on wood, but the Panthers left Wofford without no serious injuries to key players. That includes Christian McCaffrey, whose health has been a hot topic in Spartanburg.
When healthy, McCaffrey's an elite offensive weapon. In 2019, he became the third running back in NFL history with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Since then, he's only played in 10 games over two years due to various injuries.
Rhule wants to limit McCaffrey's reps in practice and the preseason with the goal of turning him loose in the regular season.
"We've done a lot of studies. I think the simple fact is most great players like Christian, of the same size, they just continue to play," Rhule said. "I'm not worried about Christian getting hurt. I'm worried about Christian being the best running back in the National Football League and doing everything I can to help him be that."
If the Panthers are considering a reduced workload for CMC, they aren't showing it.
"I'm not ready to talk about the season yet," Rhule said. "When the time comes we'll address it as best we can."
Speaking of healthy players, the Panthers were fortunate to get through training camp without any major injuries to key players. There were a few bumps along the way, though. Tight end Ian Thomas could miss a couple of weeks with bruised ribs, while receiver C.J. Saunders is expected to be on the shelf for up to a month with a strained quad.
Second-year cornerback Jaycee Horn was limited during training camp as he rehabs a broken foot that led to season-ending surgery last year. Rhule said Wednesday that the staff was getting ready to "turn him loose."
Rhule said Wednesday that he feels good about the work the team did over two weeks in Spartanburg. After facing Washington to open the preseason, they'll have joint practices with New England ahead of their exhibition game.
"I think we did a really nice job of becoming a physical team and working on our execution," Rhule said. "We threw a lot at the guys and they did a really nice job of adapting to it and handling it. We got out of this what we wanted to get out of this. Building a team, being isolated and really good work that we've had."
3. A rebuilt offensive line is making noise
Not only does offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo have a quarterback competition on his hands, he's still trying to establish the best offensive line combination. The Panthers are expected to have multiple new starters on the front.
First-round pick and Charlotte native Ikem Ekwonu has been competing with the first and second units, alongside Brady Christensen and Michael Jordan, the starting tackle and guard, respectively.
Free agent signee Bradley Bozeman is currently listed as a co-starter at center with Pat Elflein. Austin Corbett is holding down the right guard spot, and right tackle Taylor Moton has really shown improvement this summer. Rhule praised Moton on the final day of camp, calling him the MVP.
A rebuilt offensive line that can protect the quarterback — be it Mayfield or Darnold — and open holes for Christian McCaffrey could be the difference in the Panthers challenging for a playoff spot or again picking in the top 10 in next year's draft.
The Panthers open the preseason at Washington on Aug. 13, facing former head coach Ron Rivera and the Commanders.
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