By Sharon Thorsland
Around the NFL, hope springs eternal in August. And there is plenty of optimism surrounding the Panthers. Star running back Christian McCaffrey is healthy again, the defense gets cornerback Jaycee Horn back, and oh yeah, we’ve got a quarterback competition going on that’s got fans buzzing. Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are duking it out on the field, and we’ll get a good look at them Saturday afternoon when the Panthers take on the Commanders in Washington. Coach Matt Rhule said both players will get at least a series in the game before giving way to P.J. Walker and rookie Matt Corral. They’ll be facing a familiar foe – the Commanders have a slew of former Panthers on the roster and are led by former Panther coach Ron Rivera. “It’s gonna be great seeing him in person,” said cornerback Donte Jackson. “Everybody’s gonna be excited to see him.”
No doubt Panther fans are excited to see how Mayfield/Darnold and offense fare against the Washington defense, which struggled last season but gets a boost with the return of veteran defensive end Montez Sweat. Star defensive end Chase Young remains sidelined as he works his way back from a torn ACL, but the interior line is solid with the addition of former Alabama run stuffer Phidarian Mathis in the draft. He teams with Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne to form one of the best defensive tackle groups in the NFL. The Commanders also drafted a pair of defensive backs to shore up a unit that ranked 29th in the league last season in passing yards allowed and dead last in passing touchdowns. Depending on which starters play for the Panthers, the offense could have a big day against this group. “The biggest thing for me is seeing them playing versus other people, not just our guys, and evaluate that” said Panther offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
The Commanders have their own quarterback to evaluate in Carson Wentz. The former Eagles and Colts starter takes over for Taylor Heinicke, who returns as a backup. No doubt it will be Sam Howell getting the bulk of the snaps in the game, though – the former UNC standout has been turning heads in camp with his solid play. The Commanders boast one of the top receivers in the league in Terry McLaurin. He teams with former Panther Curtis Samuel and another Tar Heel in Dyami Brown. First round draft pick Jahan Dotson is an explosive playmaker who is also an outstanding punt returner.
When it comes to stopping the run, the Panthers weren’t so great at it last season, ranking 18th in the league. Improving that has been a focus, and they’ll get a good test from this Washington unit. Third year player Antonio Gibson teams with J.D. McKissick and rookie Brian Robinson, who rushed for over 2700 yards and 29 touchdowns at Alabama. Former Tar Heel Reggie Bonnafon should get plenty of carries Saturday as well. “They have a lot of guys that can really run the ball,” said Panther linebacker Jeremy Chinn. “And then they can throw the ball as well. Terry is probably one of the best receivers in the whole league, and Gibson can run the ball really well, too. They’ve got weapons on the offensive side.”
Chinn and the rest of the Panthers starters likely won’t see too much action in the game, as the 2’s and 3’s will get most of the reps. But no matter who’s on the field, they’ll be ready to play. “It’s gonna be exciting,” said Jackson. “We’re all tired of hitting each other. Everyone wants to get out there and see a different uniform, tackle a different uniform, and I’m sure those Washington guys feel the same way. It’s gonna be exciting.”