It’s game week for the Carolina Panthers.
Two weeks after training camp, the Panthers return to Spartanburg starting Monday for three practices before the end of the Wofford portion of camp.
Bank of America Stadium will host the team’s Fan Fest event on Thursday. The Panthers then travel to Washington for their first preseason game against the Commanders at 1 p.m. Saturday.
It was a fast and productive camp for Carolina. The team is in its final phase of setup before the trip to Washington, Panthers coach Matt Rhule said.
The team is improving daily under new Offensive Coordinator Ben McAdoo. Quarterback Baker Mayfield looks more comfortable with each practice as he and Sam Darnold vie for the starting position. Healthy running avenues are opening up for halfbacks Christian McCaffrey, D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. The trio can thank the team’s revamped offensive line for that.
The defense — which is looking for more turnovers this season — has intercepted Mayfield and Darnold seven times in nine drives. But the injuries, especially in the secondary and across the defensive line, are starting to pile up.
With the usual questions still looming over the quarterback, key player injuries beginning to linger, and roster changes looming, here are three major questions heading into week three of the Panthers’ training camp.
When will the Panthers name a starting QB?
The Panthers are in no rush to name a starting quarterback.
Rhule still splits first-team reps evenly between Mayfield and Darnold. That will continue this week and likely in the team’s joint practices next week in New England with the Patriots.
“Patriots week is like a real litmus test for us. It will really show us where the guys are,” Rhule said. “So we will continue to divide the representatives. … We’ll do evaluations after training camp ends at Wofford on Wednesday, and then probably after the game and the Patriots.
“Quarterbacking for me, like we’ve always said – that’s when we know, we know, and we’re not going to rush.”
Until the Panthers play a few regular season games, there’s no way to tell if the team’s open QB competition is a good team-building strategy or a wasteful, time-consuming experiment.
From a locker room perspective, Rhule sends a clear message that players need to earn their jobs. Rhule didn’t hand the quarterback job to Mayfield, in the same way No. 6 overall pick Ikem Ekwonu still takes second-team left tackle reps.
Maybe it plays well in the locker room. Assuming Mayfield is eventually named the starter, giving Darnold a good shot should help keep his spirits up in case Mayfield is injured or unavailable.
From the perspective of time, pace, and offensive consistency, however, it’s hard to justify allocating half of all training reps to a possible backup.
Expect this competition to continue at least until the second pre-season game, which takes place in New England on August 19.
Panthers injury news: Jaycee Horn and Terrace Marshall remain out
The Panthers face more than half a dozen key player injuries heading into week three of training camp. Here’s an overview, with an estimated timeout designation for each player.
▪ Shaq Thompson: (knee, PUP list)
The Carolina starting center linebacker started camp on the roster physically unable to perform after undergoing a knee cleaning procedure. He’s 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 Cory Littleton and Damien Wilson are on the first team along with linebacker Frankie Luvu. Rookie Brandon Smith is also getting a few looks.
Thompson — or “Coach Shaq,” as the players call him during camp — is missing extended training camp time for the first time in his career.
▪ Jaycee Horn: (foot, day to day)
Horn started training camp on the PUP roster, reporting pain in his surgically repaired right foot after the team conditioning test. The team activated it last Monday, allowing it for individual exercises.
His presence lasted two practices when an undisclosed setback occurred. On Wednesday, Horn was inactive again. It’s not the time to panic yet, but it would be ideal for Horn to gain some preseason reps, especially in Week 3 when most rookies are playing.
“Jaycee will probably be (day to day) until early next week,” Rhule said. “They took some things and said, ‘Hey, give it a few days. We all feel really good about where he’s headed.
Horn missed the last 14 games last year after breaking three bones in his right foot during a Thursday night game in Houston.
▪ CJ Henderson (ankle, one week)
Initially, cornerback was the Panthers’ deepest position – that quickly changed. Henderson rolled his ankle Thursday and missed practices Friday and Saturday.
Rhule said the injury was a minor adjustment and the team was cautious. Henderson had an impressive camp, constantly rolling with the first team alongside Donte Jackson.
When fully healthy, the Panthers would like to deploy Jackson and Henderson on the outside while Horn fills the spot. With two of their three starting cornerbacks not practicing, this group has yet to take a team rep together.
▪ Keith Taylor (hamstrings, one or two weeks)
Taylor also had a productive camp before honing his hamstrings in practice last Monday. The sophomore defensive back made the first interception of the camp, turning Mayfield over. In Horn’s absence, Taylor took first-team reps with Henderson and Jackson.
The team doesn’t expect Taylor to return for at least another week as he rehabilitates the soft tissue injury. Carolina has been forced to sign replacement defensive backs such as Duke Dawson and Tae Hayes in response to these recent injuries.
▪ Terrace Marshal (calf, day to day)
Marshall led all Panthers receivers in rehearsals before appearing on the injury report with a sprained calf. During the first six days of camp, Marshall was the first receiver behind DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson in two-receiver sets.
He had several memorable plays, including a 30-yard reception from Darnold and a touchdown in the red zone from Mayfield.
“He has a sprained leg at the moment. So it shouldn’t be too long,” Rhule said.
▪ Marquis Haynes (knee, day to day)
Haynes will be day-to-day after sustaining a left knee injury in practice Saturday, according to the team. He was helped off the pitch and later taken away. Haynes went down in an 11-on-11 team drill. Initial concerns were that the injury was significant, but it’s not.
“Yeah, it happens fast,” defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis said after practice Saturday. “We just said a prayer for him.”
The team expects Haynes to return soon.
Lineup moves: Will the Panthers sign a rusher pass?
The Panthers are playing slow in the rush market since Haynes’ injury is not considered serious.
Some notable names are available including Everson Griffen, Trey Flowers, Carl Nassib, Takk McKinley and Jason Pierre-Paul. But the team is in no rush to add a veteran.
“We like the guys we have. (Brian) Burns, (Marquis) Haynes, Yetur (Gross-Matos), we loved this group,” Rhule said before camp started. “We will keep an eye on the other guys if they open up as they are available. But it’s not a major need that we feel panicked about.
The team cut long snapper Thomas Fletcher on Thursday to make room for defensive back Tae Hayes. Carolina drafted Fletcher in the sixth round last year but hid him on injured reserve with a hip injury. He was expected to challenge 36-year-old JJ Jansen, but that battle is over.
“I think Fletch is going to play a long time in this league,” Rhule said. “I felt like it was the right time for him, to allow him to go get another team.”
Jansen only needs to play 13 games to pass John Kasay for the most in franchise history.