Panthers coach Matt Rhule paused before his Wednesday news conference following Carolina’s final practice in Spartanburg, S.C.
Reflecting on 11 practices over nearly three weeks, Rhule first thanked Wofford College for housing the Panthers in their dorms, athletic facilities and practice fields. Speaking with appreciation, the third-year NFL coach detailed the benefits of being away from the team’s headquarters for training camp.
“It’s great when phones go down and decks of cards come out. It’s great when phones go down and ping-pong paddles come out. Those are great things for teams, and they only happen when you get away for a little bit,” Rhule said. “We thank Wofford and all the wonderful people who work early in the morning to late at night to take care of us. A bunch of us last night, players and coaches, just sat in the courtyard and hung out. You cannot get that anywhere else.”
With Spartanburg and their first preseason game behind them, the Panthers are headed to New England for joint practices with the Patriots on Tuesday and Wednesday. The team will learn a lot about itself competing against a different NFL team, led by coach Bill Belichick.
Here are a couple of key questions ahead of the Panthers-Patriots joint practices.
Will Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold continue splitting reps?
The Panthers are one of four teams with an ongoing quarterback competition. Only three other teams — the Steelers, Seahawks and Falcons — have not named their Week 1 starter yet.
Rhule said the team will not formulate a real depth chart or anoint starters until after the second preseason game (Aug. 19 at New England). Perhaps Rhule names a starting left tackle or center, but the team has purposely left itself an out if it’s not ready to decide between Mayfield and Darnold after New England.
Multiple times during camp Rhule said the team will know who the starting quarterback is “when they know.” Through 12 practices, Mayfield is separating himself from Darnold. Even when Mayfield regresses, throws inaccurately or doesn’t produce a highlight throw, Darnold finds a way to underperform.
Take Fan Fest: Mayfield had a forgettable outing. He sprayed balls all evening. His timing was off and the offense wasn’t functioning. But Mayfield did not turn the ball over, while Darnold threw a pick-six to cornerback C.J. Henderson during a two-minute drill.
Mayfield and Darnold split reps during Saturday’s preseason game. Expect an even distribution of snaps to continue through the joint practices with New England.
How healthy are the Panthers?
The Panthers have avoided major injuries to key players through three weeks of camp. Considering the Jets lost their starting tackle in Mekhi Becton (knee) for the season, and the Broncos won’t have starting slot receiver Tim Patrick all year (knee), Carolina is in fair shape.
But there are notable injuries — both new and lingering — that could prove problematic. Here’s a rundown. Notice neither defensive end Marquis Haynes nor Henderson are not mentioned below. Both were dealing with injuries last week but were full participants at Fan Fest.
▪ Ian Thomas (rib, one or two weeks)
During last Saturday’s scrimmage, tight end Ian Thomas caught a deep-out route from Mayfield and was tackled out of bounds by linebacker Cory Littleton. Thomas stayed down after contact. Trainers rushed over and he was later carted away. He injured his ribs on the play and is expected to miss the next few weeks.
▪ Colin Thompson (calf, one or two weeks)
The Panthers are dealing with multiple missing tight ends. Thompson remains out with a calf injury. Stephen Sullivan has been away dealing with a family matter. Rookie Josh Babicz was carted off during Wednesday’s practice. In response, the team signed free agent tight ends Nate Becker and Ryan Izzo to add depth.
▪ C.J. Saunders (calf, two to four weeks)
Slot receiver C.J. Saunders was having an impressive camp before injuring his calf late last week. The former Buckeye was consistently repping with. the first team. He proved viable on third downs and was an outlet for both Mayfield and Darnold.
In his absence, Shi Smith has emerged as the next slot receiver up. It’ll be difficult for Saunders to make the team if he cannot practice. He spent the majority of last season on the team’s practice squad.
▪ Shaq Thompson: (knee, PUP list)
Carolina’s starting middle linebacker began camp on the physically unable to perform list after having a knee clean-up procedure. He is expected to miss all of training camp, but the team is confident he’ll be ready for Week 1 of the regular season.
In his absence, linebackers Littleton and Damien Wilson are repping with the first team along with strong-side linebacker Frankie Luvu. Rookie Brandon Smith is also garnering some looks.
▪ Jaycee Horn: (foot, day-to-day)
Horn started training camp on the PUP list, reporting soreness in his surgically repaired right foot after the team’s conditioning test. But he was quickly activated and has been working himself into game shape ever since.
The team is taking precautionary measures to protect Horn. He participated in limited team drills last week but was not a full participant at Fan Fest and he did not play at Washington.
Horn missed the final 14 games last year after he broke three bones in his right foot in a Thursday night game at Houston.
▪ Keith Taylor (hamstring, one or two weeks)
Taylor was also having a productive camp before he tweaked his hamstring during an Aug. 1 practice. The second-year defensive back made the first interception of camp by turning over Mayfield. In Horn’s absence, Taylor was taking first-team reps with Henderson and Jackson.
The team does not expect Taylor back for at least another week as he rehabs the soft-tissue injury.
▪ Terrace Marshall (calf, day-to-day)
Marshall was leading all Panthers receivers in reps before he popped up on the injury report with a calf strain. Through the first six days of camp, Marshall was the first receiver behind DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson in two-receiver sets.
He’s been out for more than a week and is expected to be limited during joint practices.
Which starting jobs are still up for grabs?
With Saunders likely out for a while, the Panthers will continue searching for a reliable slot option. Smith has stepped up since Saunders went down. But the team is also comfortable deploying Moore, Anderson, Rashard Higgins and Marshall inside as well.
Like accurately configuring an offensive line, the Panthers must identify which three receivers maximize their offense. Expect the team to experiment with several combinations through the preseason.
Left tackle/left guard
The most common offensive line combination in camp has been (from right to left) Brady Christensen, Michael Jordan, Pat Elflein, Austin Corbett and Taylor Moton. The right side of the line won’t change, but from Elflein to Christensen there is still a lot of unknown.
During certain competitive situations, the team purposely puts rookie Ikem Ekwonu at left tackle, slides Christensen to left guard and places Bradley Bozeman at center. Those five have not worked together enough to say that’s the group Carolina will undoubtedly start, but they are gaining momentum.
Linebacker/opposite pass rusher
Finding consistent contributors to play next to Brian Burns and Thompson will be vital for the team’s defense. At linebacker, Wilson and Littleton are competing for every-down snaps.
Up front, Haynes and Luvu will likely take on the bulk of pass-rushing responsibilities opposite Burns. At least one of them must become a threat.