The NFL busted down the door of sports discourse amidst Kevin Durant discussions yesterday when the Cleveland Browns finally traded Baker Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers for the cheap price of a conditional fifth-round pick. The reason it took this long was because the Panthers wanted the Browns to pay the $18 million that Mayfield was owed. The Browns eventually let up and agreed to pay just over half of that, while the Panthers cover the rest and Mayfield restructures his contract.
It is the *checks notes* sixth attempt by the Panthers to find a quarterback worth starting since Matt Rhule took over in 2019. They signed Teddy Bridgewater, then traded him, then traded for Sam Darnold, then traded up for Matt Corral, then traded for Mayfield, while also starting Cam Newton and PJ Walker at times throughout. Mayfield is one last Hail Mary attempt by Rhule to save his job.
Dan Orlovsky is very confident in Mayfield’s ability to do that and even more. Immediately after news broke of the trade, he tweeted out that the Panthers were a playoff team. Then he went on First Take on Thursday morning to reiterate his point and explain why.
Nothing Orlovsky says there is wrong, really. The defense ranked second in total yards given up last season and a full season of Jaycee Horn will only improve matters. Christian McCaffrey is indeed an elite playmaker when healthy. Carolina invested big resources in fixing the offensive line after last year’s debacle and any marginal improvement on that front would be a boon. Orlovsky’s point about this being the best WR room Mayfield has ever had is questionable but the larger idea of Mayfield having weapons to work with is right.
The problem is that all of the potential improvements Orlovsky listed have to happen in order for the Panthers to be a playoff team. They need Mayfield to look more like his 2020 self than his 2021 or 2019 self. They need the OL to take a big step. They need to stay healthy on both sides of the ball. Ben McAdoo needs to design a good offense for Mayfield to work with after he’s spent most of the last five years at home. Orlovsky is right that we deal in “ifs” all offseason but that’s a lot of ifs!
Then you take the schedule into account. The Panthers have to play the NFC West, which boasted three playoff teams last season, and the AFC North, home of the defending conference champions and at least one MVP-caliber quarterback. They also have to play Tom Brady’s Bucs twice along with Russell Wilson’s Broncos as a treat.
So in essence, the Panthers need everything to go right while raising their level of play to match with anywhere from five to eight potential playoff teams. It’s possible, technically. But not terribly likely.