Matt Rhule

Christian McCaffrey A Trade Candidate?

The Panthers are off to a slow start, and Baker Mayfield ranks last (by a considerable margin) in QBR exiting Week 4. Rumors of Matt Rhule‘s Carolina exit continue to swirl.

Christian McCaffrey‘s name is now coming up in trade rumors again. The former All-Pro running back should be monitored ahead of the trade deadline, according to various NFL executives (via the Washington Post’s Jason La Canfora). McCaffrey remains attached to the four-year, $64MM extension he signed in 2020. Nearly 2 1/2 years after it was finalized, McCaffrey’s deal still tops the running back market.

Although McCaffrey’s AAV leads the field at the position, the Panthers restructured his contract in March. As a result, CMC’s 2022 base salary checks in at just $1MM. An acquiring team would be on the hook for that figure, along with the remaining three years of this contract. Those would morph into nonguaranteed years for an acquiring team, though the deal does include lofty future base salaries of $11.8MM (2023 and ’24) and $12MM (2025). The Panthers would take on some dead money this year and next.

Potentially seeking to add draft capital for their post-Rhule period, the Panthers could be open to taking on some of McCaffrey’s money. Two GMs informed La Canfora the Panthers would likely be prepared to take on some salary to move McCaffrey “and others” to stockpile future assets. It would be interesting if the Panthers would eat any part of McCaffrey’s 2023 salary to move him. As of now, the Panthers would be hit with $7.6MM in dead money by trading McCaffrey before the Nov. 1 deadline.

Carolina being willing to pick up some of CMC’s future salary would stand to make him a more valuable commodity, and teams have called on the sixth-year back before. Rhule called McCaffrey to inform him he was not part of the Panthers’ Deshaun Watson trade talks before last year’s deadline, but the team listened as CMC trade interest came in this year. The Panthers wanted a first-round pick and a cap-friendly player for McCaffrey in March; that would be a tough ask given the ex-Stanford superstar’s injury history. But if the Panthers continue to struggle, McCaffrey’s name could continue to circulate.

Rhule authorized the record-setting payment to McCaffrey, a Dave Gettlemen-era draftee. Owner David Tepper was not in place when the Panthers selected McCaffrey eighth overall, but he obviously greenlit the extension. McCaffrey, 26, has battled extensive injury issues in the years since. After multiple maladies led to the second-generation NFLer playing in just 10 games between the 2020 and ’21 seasons, however, he has played in each of Carolina’s four contests this year. McCaffrey has two 100-yard rushing games thus far this season, and after he missed practices due to a quadriceps injury last week, the dual-threat back caught nine passes for 81 yards and a touchdown in Carolina’s Week 4 loss.

David Johnson was part of a trade that sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, but running back trade hauls do not generally produce much. The only other back to be traded for even a third-round pick over the past eight years was Duke Johnson, who fetched a third-rounder in going from the Browns to the Texans in 2019. In-season Dolphins deals sending away Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake respectively produced fourth- and fifth-round compensation. Then again, backs of McCaffrey’s caliber are not readily available. While a first-round pick along the lines of the price the Colts paid the Browns for Trent Richardson during the 2013 season would be difficult to envision, McCaffrey would still generate considerable interest — if he can remain healthy.

Of course, Rhule fighting to keep his job would seemingly put CMC trade talks on hold. It would be quite odd if the Panthers dealt one of their best players with their coach on perhaps the NFL’s hottest seat. Then again, La Canfora adds some within the organization are sensing a game of chicken between Rhule and Tepper.

Rhule signed a monster contract in 2020 (seven years, $62MM), which will leave Tepper on the hook for a rare sum if he fires his third-year HC. Rhule, 47, will also be a candidate for high-profile college vacancies, given his success crafting turnarounds at Temple and Baylor. Rhule being axed before the trade deadline would make a McCaffrey trade more logical. Going into Week 5 — against a No. 1-ranked 49ers defense — the Panthers’ Rhule-Mayfield-McCaffrey setup remains intact.

Latest On Panthers’ QB Situation

The Panthers have been receiving plenty of attention lately given the struggles of their quarterback and the increasing calls for a head coaching change. For at least the short-term future, though, the status quo appears likely to continue on both fronts. 

[RELATED: Panthers Seeking Experienced Rhule Replacement?]

When speaking to the media yesterday, Matt Rhule continued to support summer trade acquisition Baker Mayfield as the team’s starter. “I think Baker’s our quarterback. We have to continue to find ways to help him,” he said (Twitter link via Joe Person of The Athletic).

In the franchise’s latest attempt to solidify the position, Carolina executed a long-anticipated trade for the former No. 1 pick in July. Mayfield took a pay cut to facilitate his move out of Cleveland, and quickly won the training camp competition between he and incumbent Sam Darnold. Things have not started as well as anyone had hoped, however.

Mayfield has completed less than 55% of his attempts, totaling 747 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. His 75.0 quarterback rating is a career-low mark, and the Panthers rank last in the NFL at an average of 283 yards per contest. Those figures fall well short of expectations entering the season, where a return to health for the Oklahoma product was thought to provide stability and an upgrade over Darnold.

The latter’s health represents the most immediate reason why Mayfield will remain the starter for the time being. Darnold has begun the season on IR due to an ankle sprain; despite the fact that he is now eligible to return, Rhule said that he is not ready to do so, with Week 6 being a more realistic target (Twitter link via ESPN’s David Newton). Darnold’s level of play last year led to the team’s urgency in trading for Mayfield, so it would come as a surprise if he were to return to the No. 1 role.

“I just feel like we have to expect more than that from all of us as an offense,” Rhule added via Person when asked about the unit’s struggles (subscription required). “Offensively, we have to score more points. And that starts with me, goes to [offensive coordinator] Ben [McAdoo], goes to the assistant coaches and players. We have to get it corrected.”

Panthers Seeking Experienced HC Post-Matt Rhule?

The Panthers became one of a few 0-2 teams to respond with a Week 3 win. That likely extended Matt Rhule‘s leash, but the third-year Carolina HC is not out of the woods yet.

Rhule is under “heavy scrutiny” from David Tepper, and the franchise’s fifth-year owner is losing patience with the former successful college coach, Aaron Wilson of ProFootballNetwork.com notes. As we heard last weekend, no firing is imminent. Rhule (11-25 in two-plus seasons) remains tied to a seven-year, $62MM contract he signed in 2020.

The Panthers also have a plus-3 point differential this season, which has seen them lose on 56- and 58-yard game-winning field goals. But the odds are against the former Temple and Baylor HC making it to the 2023 season in Carolina.

After the Panthers shelled out a monster contract for an unproven NFL coach, many around the league expect Tepper to replace Rhule with an experienced option, Wilson adds. The Panthers would be in the market for a retread, a route this franchise has taken just once (George Seifert) in its history. Five of the 10 teams with coaching vacancies went with second-chance options this year as well. Cowboys DC Dan Quinn, Bills DC Leslie Frazier, Steelers linebackers coach Brian Flores (his lawsuit notwithstanding) and Jim Caldwell were retread options to take multiple interviews this offseason but not land jobs.

This is a similar path to the one the Panthers traversed when identifying their 2022 offensive coordinator, with former head coach Ben McAdoo landing the gig. Unfortunately, Carolina’s offense is what has held Rhule back. The defensive coordinator Rhule brought with him from the college ranks, Phil Snow, oversaw last season’s second-ranked (yardage-wise) unit. And the team’s Week 3 turnover spree led to the win over the Saints. Offensively, the Panthers have yet to see much from Baker Mayfield, who is thus far continuing the Rhule-era run of unsatisfactory quarterback play.

Rhule’s inability to properly staff the QB spot is not for lack of trying; the team was linked to Deshaun Watson in 2021 and was a finalist for the embattled passer this year. But the trades for Mayfield and Sam Darnold and the Teddy Bridgewater free agency accord have not worked out. Though, Mayfield has only played three games. The former Browns starter will enter Week 4 last in QBR. Should Rhule be canned during the season, he would undoubtedly be a coveted option for college programs seeking an upgrade.

Latest On Panthers HC Matt Rhule’s Job Status

SEPTEMBER 25: Per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, who cites sources informed of the Panthers’ thinking, team owner David Tepper is planning to remain patient with Rhule, and no coaching change is imminent at this time. The fight and effort that Rhule’s charges have displayed is working in his favor, although Rapoport is clear that improvement will need to happen sooner rather than later in order for Rhule to remain in his post.

Rhule is 10-25 as an NFL head coach, and under his watch, the Panthers are 1-25 in games in which they allow 17 or more points, the worst mark in the league since Rhule was hired in 2020.

SEPTEMBER 24: The 2022 season always seemed like it was going to be a make-or-break year for Panthers head coach Matt Rhule. Following an 0-2 start to the season, some league sources already believe the coach will be ousted sooner than later. Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post opines that Rhule will be coaching college football by the start of the 2023 season.

Further, multiple agents pointed to the Panthers as the first franchise to have a coaching vacancy this season, with some already considering which of their clients would be best for the gig. Meanwhile, “two high-ranking NFL officials” don’t think Rhule will be sticking around for much longer; one estimated that the coach would need an insane winning streak to keep his job, while another guessed that Rhule will be canned before the Panthers’ Week 13 bye.

Of course, this isn’t all that shocking considering Carolina’s lack of success with Rhule at the helm. After going 5-11 during his first season as head coach, the Panthers went 5-12 in 2021. Last year’s iteration of the team was 5-5 in mid-November, but the Panthers closed out the campaign with a seven-game losing streak. Tack on the team’s two losses this season, and it’s been a bit since the Panthers earned a W, and that’s already led to whisper of Rhule’s demise.

Rhule got his first head coaching opportunity at Temple in Philadelphia, where he had spent years as an assistant under Al Golden. He took his first Power 5 opportunity as the head coach at Baylor, following the scandal that led to Art Briles‘s dismissal. He took the Bears from 1-11 in his first season to 11-3 in his third season and rode that success straight to the NFL.

A handful of league sources told La Canfora that Rhule was ready to jump at the LSU gig when it opened up about a year ago. Even if the coach can’t secure a job of “that magnitude,” the reporter notes that Rhule’s name was quickly tossed around as a candidate for the Nebraska job following Scott Frost’s dismissal. La Canfora also expects Rhule to continually be connected to college vacancies over the coming weeks, and if the Panthers continue to struggle, it might not take a whole lot for him to jump ship…and it doesn’t sound like anyone from the Panthers organization would stop him.

Panthers Name Baker Mayfield Starting QB

The Panthers have been holding an open competition for their starting quarterback spot throughout training camp, and the winner of that battle has been named. The team announced on Monday that Baker Mayfield will occupy the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. 

That news comes as little surprise, given the team’s acquisition of the former Heisman winner in July. Mayfield, especially if healthier than last season, should represent a significant upgrade over incumbent Sam Darnold. It became clear in the aftermath of the deal that Panthers’ preference was to bring in Mayfield much earlier in the offseason; the delay gave Darnold a temporary edge given his knowledge of the team’s offense, but things began to change quickly.

Two weeks ago, it became clear that Mayfield was distancing himself as the clear-cut top option under center. Today’s confirmation comes after he played just one series so far in the preseason, but showcased enough in doing so to point to the consistent level of play at the position Carolina has been looking for, as noted by SI’s Albert Breer. NFL Network’s James Palmer tweets that Mayfield will start the team’s final preseason game on Friday.

“When we started this process, we were looking at three things,” head coach Matt Rhule said (via Palmer, on Twitter). “Number one, mastery of the offense, number two, situational football excellence, and number three, moving the ball and getting guys involved. That’s been our focus all along.”

Today’s news also confirms that Mayfield’s Panthers debut will be against the Browns to open the regular season. Cleveland is paying $10.5MM of his fifth-year option salary, a move which was necessary to move on from the former No. 1 pick as the team transitions to Deshaun Watson. In spite of that, Mayfield is insisting that his focus is not on proving his former team wrong for replacing him.

“It’s not a redemption year,” he said, via ESPN’s David Newton“I know what I’m capable of. I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody else. I’m just trying to lead this locker room the best I can and win a bunch of ball games.”

With the competition settled, Darnold will now be relegated to the backup role after his underwhelming Jets tenure. Carolina has made it clear on multiple occasions, though, that they are not looking to trade him. As unsurprising as today’s announcement is, it marks another disappointing chapter in his NFL career. Nonetheless, the Panthers are set at the most important position in advance of a season where a significant improvement is desperately needed.

Latest On Panthers’ QB Situation

The Panthers have one of the league’s only quarterback competitions this summer and plan to draw it out a bit longer. Carolina doesn’t plan on making what head coach Matt Rhule calls a “major decision” on any position battles until after the team’s second preseason game on August 19, according to David Newton of ESPN. This, of course, includes the starting quarterback battle between incumbent Sam Darnold and trade acquisition Baker Mayfield

Darnold’s debut season in Carolina was the worst of his career according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). PFF has consistently graded Darnold among the worst NFL quarterbacks, ranking him 29th, 31st, and 35th in his first three seasons in New York. He continued his downward trajectory ranking as the 36th out of 37 ranked quarterbacks last year, finishing only over Ben Roethlisberger.

Mayfield, on the other hand, graded out very poorly in 2021 (30th out of 37), but has seen success in his healthier seasons in Cleveland, even taking them to the playoffs and earning their first postseason win since the 1994 NFL season in 2020. His career has been a rollercoaster celebrating the ups of his 2018 and 2020 seasons while stomaching the downs of his 2019 and 2021 seasons. Still, that’s two more impressive seasons than his competitor has seen in the NFL and should give him an initial edge.

Mayfield is the expected leader in the race right now based on that past success. The two have split reps on first and second team down the middle this summer, giving both a chance to work with the ones. At some point, though, the Panthers staff is going to want to give somebody more first team reps in preparation to be the Panthers’ starting quarterback for the regular season. Rhule seems to imply that a decision could ultimately be pushed even closer to the start of the season.

“I’m not putting a timetable on the quarterback position until after we get back from Patriots week,” Rhule explained after today’s scrimmage. “The Patriots week is a true litmus test for us. That will really show us where guys are.”

In addition to the QB1 battle, there are a couple of other positions that have battles to be decided after the team’s time in Foxborough. Wide receiver Terrace Marshall is expected to take a big step in his second season and push Robby Anderson for the WR2 spot behind D.J. Moore. The return of cornerback Jaycee Horn presents a logjam atop the depth chart of the position. The Panthers will have to decide if they like Horn or last year’s trade acquisition C.J. Henderson on the outside. If they choose Horn, Henderson will have to compete with Keith Taylor in the slot. In they choose Henderson on the outside, Horn will likely man the slot.

It will be interesting to see how Carolina approaches the third preseason game. The last game of the preseason is traditionally a game full of backups and roster bubble guys as the starters tend to rest in order to prevent injury. If the Panthers are waiting until that game to make crucial depth chart decisions, they may be forced to give the finalized first string some reps together in their last game action before the regular season. Regardless, it sounds like Panthers fans will have to wait until late August to know exactly what the Panthers’ depth chart will look like.

Panthers HC, GM Wanted Baker Mayfield At Team’s Minicamp

The Browns and Panthers engaged in trade talks for Baker Mayfield for nearly three months, and although the expected result finally emerged this week, Matt Rhule and Carolina GM Scott Fitterer wanted it to happen sooner.

Prior to Mayfield accepting a $3.5MM pay cut, with the possibility of recouping that money through incentives, the Panthers wanted the fifth-year quarterback to reduce his fully guaranteed salary by $7MM, Joe Person and Zac Jackson of The Athletic report (subscription required). Although this component of the trade caused a delay, both Rhule and Fitterer wanted this trade to be completed before the Panthers reported for minicamp.

Mayfield arriving ahead of Carolina’s minicamp would have given him more time to begin learning new OC Ben McAdoo‘s playbook, and the four-year Browns starter being at Panther minicamp obviously would have begun his competition with Sam Darnold earlier. Panthers owner David Tepper, however, was determined not to overpay for a “depressed asset,” with Person and Jackson adding the fifth-year Panthers owner being “dug in” led to Mayfield remaining with the Browns during minicamp time.

Mayfield recently expressed frustration the Browns did not trade him ahead of minicamp, but it is now known he was aware of the situation involving the Panthers when making those comments. The Browns are covering $10.5MM of his salary; the former Heisman winner is on the Panthers’ payroll at $4.86MM. While it should be expected Mayfield prevails in his upcoming competition with Darnold, the latter has a several-month head start in McAdoo’s offense — including on-field work at OTAs and minicamp. Mayfield has shown far more than Darnold on the field, and while that might win out, the timing of this trade did not do the newcomer any favors.

Carolina’s hopes at a $7MM pay cut became a non-starter for Mayfield, but Person and Jackson note the quarterback’s agent and Panthers VP of football administration Samir Suleiman worked out the $3.5MM incentive package. That made the 27-year-old passer more amenable to reducing the fully guaranteed $18.9MM salary.

The Browns initially sought a Day 2 pick for Mayfield — an asking price similar to the 49ers’ early Jimmy Garoppolo goal — and did hold talks with other teams about the quarterback, but the Panthers were the only serious suitor. The Colts, whom Mayfield eyed after the Browns entered the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes, quickly landed Matt Ryan. The Seahawks did not make a “real trade inquiry,” per The Athletic.

The NFL’s Longest-Tenured Head Coaches

The NFL experienced a busy offseason on the coaching front. A whopping 10 teams changed coaches during the 2022 offseason, with the Buccaneers’ late-March switch pushing the number into double digits.

Fourteen of the league’s 32 head coaches were hired in the past two offseasons, illustrating the increased pressure the NFL’s sideline leaders face in today’s game. Two of the coaches replaced this year left on their own. Sean Payton vacated his spot in second on the longest-tenured HCs list by stepping down from his 16-year Saints post in February, while Bruce Arians has repeatedly insisted his Bucs exit was about giving his defensive coordinator a chance with a strong roster and not a Tom Brady post-retirement power play.

While Bill Belichick has been the league’s longest-tenured HC for many years, Payton’s exit moved Mike Tomlin up to No. 2. Mike Zimmer‘s firing after nine seasons moved Frank Reich into the top 10. Reich’s HC opportunity only came about because Josh McDaniels spurned the Colts in 2018, but Indianapolis’ backup plan has led the team to two playoff brackets and has signed an extension. Reich’s seat is hotter in 2022, however, after a January collapse. Linked to numerous HC jobs over the past several offseasons, McDaniels finally took another swing after his Broncos tenure ended quickly.

As 2022’s training camps approach, here are the NFL’s longest-tenured HCs:

  1. Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): January 27, 2000
  2. Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers): January 27, 2007; extended through 2024
  3. John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens): January 19, 2008; extended through 2025
  4. Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks): January 9, 2010; extended through 2025
  5. Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs): January 4, 2013; extended through 2025
  6. Sean McDermott (Buffalo Bills): January 11, 2017; extended through 2025
  7. Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams): January 12, 2017; extended through 2023
  8. Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers): February 6, 2017; extended through 2025
  9. Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans): January 20, 2018; signed extension in February 2022
  10. Frank Reich (Indianapolis Colts): February 11, 2018; extended through 2026
  11. Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals): January 8, 2019; extended through 2027
  12. Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers): January 8, 2019
  13. Zac Taylor (Cincinnati Bengals): February 4, 2019; extended through 2026
  14. Ron Rivera (Washington Football Team): January 1, 2020
  15. Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers): January 7, 2020
  16. Mike McCarthy (Dallas Cowboys): January 7, 2020
  17. Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland Browns): January 13, 2020
  18. Robert Saleh (New York Jets): January 15, 2021
  19. Arthur Smith (Atlanta Falcons): January 15, 2021
  20. Brandon Staley (Los Angeles Chargers): January 17, 2021
  21. Dan Campbell (Detroit Lions): January 20, 2021
  22. Nick Sirianni (Philadelphia Eagles): January 21, 2021
  23. Nathaniel Hackett (Denver Broncos): January 27, 2022
  24. Matt Eberflus (Chicago Bears): January 27, 2022
  25. Brian Daboll (New York Giants): January 28, 2022
  26. Josh McDaniels (Las Vegas Raiders): January 30, 2022
  27. Kevin O’Connell (Minnesota Vikings): February 2, 2022
  28. Doug Pederson (Jacksonville Jaguars): February 3, 2022
  29. Mike McDaniel (Miami Dolphins): February 6, 2022
  30. Dennis Allen (New Orleans Saints): February 7, 2022
  31. Lovie Smith (Houston Texans): February 7, 2022
  32. Todd Bowles (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): March 30, 2022

Browns, Panthers Remain In Discussions On Baker Mayfield

As the Browns and Panthers’ salary viewpoints diverged considerably during the draft, the teams’ Baker Mayfield talks broke down. Carolina traded into the third round for Matt Corral. Matt Rhule is warming up to the idea a Corral-Sam Darnold competition will be enough for this year’s Panthers edition, Joe Person of The Athletic notes (subscription required).

But Mayfield is still generating support from some inside the NFC South squad’s building, Person adds. This has reached the point where the Panthers have resumed discussions with the Browns on a trade for the fifth-year quarterback, Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports tweets.

Both teams begin minicamp Tuesday. Rhule said last week the Panthers would evaluate their quarterback position after minicamp but indicated a free agent at any position would not need to be acquired too long before training camp to pick up new OC Ben McAdoo‘s system. Days later, some semblance of urgency exists on the Panthers’ side on the Mayfield front, Jones adds (via Twitter). This stance would make sense, with Mayfield having a better chance to bounce back in Carolina with additional time to learn McAdoo’s offense ahead of training camp.

The Panthers having checked in on Russell Wilson and aggressively pursued Deshaun Watson — a year after making a strong offer for Matthew Stafford — makes the prospect of running it back with Darnold (31st in 2021 QBR) tough to buy. But Rhule has bolted on the team’s previous starter (Cam Newton, Teddy Bridgewater) in each of his first two offseasons. And the team did make upgrades along its offensive line, which would stand to aid Darnold in his second Panthers slate. But, through four seasons, Mayfield has been a far more viable starter than Darnold. For a coach on one of the NFL’s hottest seats, adding a quarterback at a much cheaper cost than it took to land Bridgewater or Darnold would seemingly check out.

The Browns have waited for the Panthers’ Darnold-Corral competition to induce them to return to the Mayfield table, but money still divides the teams sitting first and second in cap space. During the draft, the Browns were barely prepared to pay $3MM of Mayfield’s $18.9MM fully guaranteed salary. The Panthers wanted them to pick up at least $13MM. Cleveland appears to have moved closer to the latter figure, and the more the AFC North team pays, the better the draft compensation would be. Still, Carolina should not be expected to give up much for Mayfield.

The Browns would be stuck with nearly the full salary if they release Mayfield, which has long been a non-starter. The Seahawks have been monitoring this situation for months, but lately, the only Seattle-Mayfield connections pertain to a potential release. The latest reports of Panthers-Browns talks could motivate the Seahawks — amid a Geno SmithDrew Lock QB competition — to reconsider their trade stance. For now, Carolina remains the frontrunner for Mayfield.

Panthers’ Draft Plan

Carolina’s draft plans are becoming foggier and foggier each day as the Panthers are either really running through all of their options or else they are throwing up one heck of a smokescreen. Supporting a rumor we posted almost two weeks ago, Carolina will host NC State offensive lineman Ikem Ekwonu and Mississippi State offensive tackle Charles Cross this Tuesday for their 30 visits, according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. 

Breer goes on to posit what many have deduced at this point from Carolina’s actions: if either of two of the Draft’s top offensive linemen fall to the Panthers’ first-round pick at sixth overall, Carolina would be expected to pounce at the opportunity to select them. This would fill a huge need at offensive tackle for the Panthers, but would leave another position need behind center unaddressed. The assumption is that, if the Panthers draft Ekwonu or Cross, they would address their need at quarterback by going after a veteran option like Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo.

This take seems to be diametrically opposed to multiple other takes we’ve heard in the last four days alone. On Wednesday, we heard that Carolina was considering trading their No. 6 overall pick to grab a few additional draft picks. Yesterday, we reported on rumors that “the consensus of the people in this league” is that Carolina is going to draft one of two quarterbacks: Malik Willis out of Liberty or Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh. Six hours later, we reported that the Panthers were reversing course on statements made in March about their lack of interest in Mayfield and, in fact, had the inside track to acquire the Browns’ quarterback.

That last report is the only one that lines up with Breer’s assertion from this morning. That could either point to some much anticipated clarification on the Panthers’ draft plans or it could be some expert mind-trickery by general manager Scott Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule. Sandwiched between the Giants’ two top-seven picks (No. 5 & No. 7), the Panthers’ draft needs are not far off from those of New York. So these mind-games could be targeted specifically at one franchise. Those early reports that Carolina would draft Willis or Pickett could’ve been aimed to put pressure on New York to take a quarterback with their first pick, increasing the odds that an offensive lineman like Ekwonu or Cross falls to them at six. Similarly, the increased reports that the Panthers want Ekwonu or Cross and will sign a veteran quarterback may be aimed to take that pressure off of New York, lulling the Giants into selecting an offensive lineman and giving Carolina more options at quarterback in the first round.

It’s a lot to follow and mostly going in circles, I know, but Carolina can afford to focus this much attention on their No. 6 pick because, with no selections in the second or third round, their second pick of the draft comes at the end of the fourth round slotted as 137th overall. While the scouting brass may have plans to acquire extra picks, their current situation makes their decision surrounding the sixth pick their most important decision of the offseason.

I honestly don’t know whether to tell you to expect things to get clearer or muddier as we get closer to the 2022 NFL Draft. The idea that Carolina is purposefully driving the narrative could even be proved false and we may find out that they truly have no idea what they want to do. Stay locked in as I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear out of Carolina in the next week and a half.