Less than 24 hours after the Carolina Panthers announced Sam Darnold as their Week 12 starting quarterback, the former first-round pick led the first-team offense throughout Wednesday practice for the first time this season.
Darnold — who missed the first 10 weeks of the season as he recovered from a severe high ankle sprain — has yet to play a regular-season snap this season. Interim head coach Steve Wilks initially said he would wait until Wednesday to name a starter, but chose to call an audible and get ahead of the first practice of the week by making the decision on Tuesday.
“It was something that I wanted to do – I felt like, again, just putting us in the best position to have an opportunity to win,” Wilks said. “Sam, again, did not play much this year because of the high ankle sprain that he received (in the preseason), he had to go through the process of working his way back. But I think the skill set is there, and again, I felt like I wanted to give him that opportunity to see what he could do.”
Darnold and former starters Baker Mayfield and PJ Walker all practiced during the open portion of Wednesday’s workout. Walker missed last week’s loss to the Ravens with a high ankle sprain but was a limited participant on Wednesday.
During the first 11 games of the season, Mayfield and Walker swapped roles with the first- and second-team offenses. Mayfield started six games, including the loss to the Ravens, while Walker started the first five games of Wilks’ tenure following the firing of Matt Rhule.
Now, Darnold will have the keys to the offense.
“I’m just excited to play football,” Darnold said. “I’m excited to be able to go out there and play with the guys. The biggest thing for me is playing consistent, and taking what they give me. I think that’ll kind of be the story of the day on Sunday, and I’m excited to go out there and do what I can to help this team win.”
Ironically, Darnold’s first start of the season will come during the same week the New York Jets benched his replacement, Zach Wilson, for backup quarterback Mike White.
While Darnold was never benched in New York, he was pulled from the lineup last season in Carolina. He has also dealt with multiple injuries and being sidelined for things out of his control.
That’s the way of life in the NFL for a struggling young quarterback.
“I’m not really paying too much attention to what’s going on over there, but I did see (Wilson was benched). Obviously, it’s a crazy business — but we’re really focused on the task at hand, which is playing a really good Broncos team,” Darnold said.
“Playing quarterback in the NFL is a tough job, but it’s the best,” Darnold added. “It’s the best job in the world, so to be able to come out and do that every single day, you don’t take it for granted, at all. Or, at least I don’t. But (benching) comes with the territory though. It’s a tough position, but at the end of the day, it’s fun. And for me, I’m living out my dream every single day.”
With Darnold nearing the end of his rookie contract, he has plenty to prove to potential suitors in free agency.
The Denver Broncos — the Panthers’ Week 12 opponents — have the NFL’s third-ranked defense, so Darnold has a tough task ahead of him. However, if he can play well against Denver, he could hold onto the starting job for the remainder of the season.
A strong six-game slate could give Darnold some intriguing prospects in free agency, either as a veteran backup or in competition for a starting spot.
“Right now, I’m not focused on the future in any circumstance,” Darnold said. “I think, for me, it’s really about focusing on this Broncos defense. And if I look too far in the future, or think about what things could look like for me next year, I’d be doing this team and this organization a disservice.”
Mayfield reacts to another benching
Mayfield will serve as Darnold’s backup on Sunday against the Broncos.
The Heisman winner has been a supportive teammate throughout his time in Carolina, but he is clearly disappointed about losing the starting job for the second time this season.
“I want to play, I’m a competitor,” Mayfield said. “It’s the same thing every week. Everybody wants to play — but like I said — there’s only one position, one person who can play our position, so Sam is doing it and we’re going to support him.”
Mayfield, Walker and Darnold have all praised each other for how the position room has handled the musical chairs at quarterback. Mayfield echoed that point on Wednesday, despite seemingly acknowledging that his time in the starting lineup might be finished for good.
“I think there’s a lot of things up in the air for the future here, so I really don’t know,” Mayfield said about his status for the remainder of the season. “I’m doing what I can, what I can control, and I know how my teammates feel about me, and how I’ve handled things here, so I can leave here with my head held high and understand I did everything I could.”
If Mayfield were to stay sidelined for the remainder of the season, he’d finish his rookie contract with the worst statistical output of his career. Through seven games (six starts), he has completed 57.8% of his passes for 1,313 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions.
He will be a free agent in March.
“I think there’s learning experiences everywhere you go,” Mayfield said. “I think I’m looking at it and trying to find the positives. So, (this year) is going to help me in the long run. Did I draw it up this way or think it was going to go this way? No, but you’ve got to handle situations everywhere you go. It’s never going to go as planned, and that’s just kind of how this year has gone.”
Injury updates: Foreman, Ioannidis miss practice
The Panthers practiced without a pair of notable names to start the week.
Running back D’Onta Foreman (rest) and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis (calf) were both held out of the workout on Wednesday. Versatile defensvie back Myles Hartsfield (ankle) was also sidelined. Ioannidis and Hartsfield both missed last week’s 13-3 loss to Baltimore.
Foreman — who ran for just 24 yards on 11 carries against the Ravens — is the Panthers’ top playmaker at the moment. During the past five weeks, Foreman has averaged 82.6 rushing yards per game and had 118 or more rushing yards in three games. He’s also scored four touchdowns during that span.
Following practice, Wilks elaborated on his decision to give Foreman the day off.
“With the workload over the period of time — you’ve got to understand that with the offensive line and running backs, there’s constant banging on each and every play,” Wilks said. “So, that was my thought process there.”
“It’s just something that, I guess, benefits the body,” Foreman said. “Getting a little bit more rest, being able to rehab a little more and not having to put extra (damage) on the tires. Just putting myself in the best position to be able to go on Sunday.”
Along with Foreman, Ioannidis and Hartsfield, offensive tackles Cam Erving (illness) and Larnel Coleman (illness), wideout Shi Smith (illness), tight end Giovanni Ricci (neck) and linebacker Cory Littleton (ankle) were held out of practice. Walker (ankle), safety Juston Burris (concussion) and wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. (shoulder) were listed as limited participants.
The Panthers will release their final injury report on Friday.
▪ The Panthers cut quarterback D’Eriq King from the practice squad ahead of Wednesday’s practice. The Panthers re-signed linebacker Arron Mosby to the practice roster as King’s replacement. Mosby was on the 53-man roster until this past Saturday before he was cut to make room for fellow linebacker and special teams ace Joel Iyiegbuniwe ahead of the loss to Baltimore Ravens.
▪ This week, punter Johnny Hekker was chosen as the Panthers’ nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. Former Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (2017) and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (2020) have previously won the NFL award, which recognizes “players who best demonstrate the qualities of on-field sportsmanship, including fair play, respect for the game and opponents, and integrity in competition,” according to the team website.
▪ On Tuesday, former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. was named as a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Smith was one of 28 nominees that made it to the next round of the voting process. During his 16-year career with the Panthers and Ravens, Smith caught 1,031 receptions for 14,731 yards and 81 touchdowns.