In the end, Baker Mayfield might owe Kenny Pickett for potentially sealing his impending freedom from the Cleveland Browns.
After months of lingering rumors, the Carolina Panthers passed on Pickett, the 2022 NFL Draft’s top quarterback prospect, and selected North Carolina State offensive tackle Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick. The Pittsburgh Steelers used the 20th overall pick on Pickett, a New Jersey native who spent the last five seasons playing for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
What does all of this have to do with Mayfield? The Panthers’ decision to pass on Pickett at No. 6 means the two-time NFC champions are still in the market for a quarterback, and something tells us there are better options than Cam Newton out there.
Could the Panthers’ choice to not select a quarterback at No. 6 mean the team is willing to acquire Mayfield from the Browns? And, more importantly, should the five-time NFC South champions make such a move?
Pros: Baker Mayfield is a superior quarterback to Sam Darnold, and that might be enough
There have been spurts in Sam Darnold’s four seasons where he’s resembled a competent NFL quarterback. In those instances, he’s displayed precisely why the New York Jets made him the third overall pick in 2018.
Alas, much like how a broken clock is right twice a day, the vast majority of quarterbacks are destined to have an instance or three per season where they look sharp.
The rest of the time?
At this stage in Darnold’s career, he’s a turnover-prone quarterback who seemingly lacks confidence and faith in himself. That’s who he is, and if a change in scenery didn’t fix it last year, there is no reason to believe he will alter his mindset anytime soon.
Even if Mayfield isn’t the same cocky quarterback he was at Oklahoma, he at least still carries himself with moxie and a winning demeanor. The Oklahoma product helped carry the Browns to the postseason in 2020 in large part because of his game-managing skills and reduced turnovers. Even if he didn’t light up scoreboards or carve through defenses the way quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady do, there was no arguing the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner’s impact in returning the Browns to relevancy.
Is that enough for the Panthers to trade for Mayfield? Well…
Cons: The financial details might be too much for Carolina to handle
When the Browns picked up Mayfield’s fifth-year option ahead of the 2021 season, they guaranteed his $18.9 (or, technically, $18.86) million 2022 salary in the process. Darnold, who went two picks after Mayfield in 2018, will earn $18.85 million in guaranteed salary.
If you’re not a Mayfield fan, that means the Panthers would potentially be paying nearly $40 million in guaranteed money next season to two mediocre quarterbacks.
Even if the Panthers are interested in Mayfield, there is no guarantee the Browns will eat a portion of that $18.9 million. We also don’t know if Carolina will trade Darnold and try absorbing a chunk of the USC product’s hefty guaranteed salary.
In hindsight, the Panthers never should have guaranteed Darnold’s fifth-year option. Had he truly shown enough in his three seasons with the Jets to warrant such a move?
That we even need to ask that question should serve as an answer.
Should the Panthers trade for Mayfield?
Shortly before the 2022 NFL Draft, Panthers receiver Robby Anderson made it clear he didn’t want the team to acquire Mayfield. Although we don’t share exactly the same sentiment, we do agree Carolina shouldn’t bother seeing how the 27-year-old looks in blue and white.
The reality of things, right or wrong, is the Panthers backed themselves into a corner by guaranteeing Darnold his 2022 salary. That money has to get paid somehow, and Carolina might be stuck with the fifth-year quarterback even if he’s eventually relegated to third-string status.
It’s too bad for Mayfield, in large part because he’s shown he can be a competent and dependable starting quarterback. If the Panthers are a quarterback away from contending for the playoffs, then it’d certainly help to have, you know, someone who has actually won a postseason game around.
And, no, that doesn’t mean the Panthers should bring Newton back. Enough of that idea. Carolina is better off hoping it has a shot at Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Remember, kids: losing is fun if it means Bryce Young.
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