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Panthers coach Matt Rhule: Sam Darnold would be our quarterback 'if we played today'

Upon the conclusion of Panthers minicamp, it has been made clear that Sam Darnold is the starting quarterback -- for now.

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Panthers coach Matt Rhule didn't tip-toe around the scenario of who would lead the offense if a game was scheduled for today.

"Sam's gotten a lot better," Rhule said. "Really, really improving in the offense and if we played today, Sam would be our quarterback."

Rhule's early assessment won't stop the speculation surrounding the Panthers' QB situation heading into 2022, of course. Carolina has been a heavily theorized destination for disgruntled Browns QB Baker Mayfield ever since he requested a trade from Cleveland. Carolina also traded up to select QB Matt Corral in the third round of April's draft and returns P.J. Walker, who has plenty of experience in his two seasons with the team.

Entering a crucial third season with a 10-23 overall record as coach, Rhule maintained that he still wants to see improvements from Darnold once the Panthers reconvene for training camp in late July.

"Sam's job is to take the next five weeks, make sure he shows up to Wofford better than what he is right now," said Rhule. "He said to me yesterday how good he feels footwork-wise in the offense. He's got to get to training camp and improve and he's got to do it with the pads on with people trying to knock you down. You look at the quarterbacking world from high school through college now, it's so much 7-on-7 a lot of guys can throw it -- it's what you do when guys are trying to chase you down. So, those are his steps. He knows that, I know that, Ben (McAdoo) knows that, that's our job as coaches is, our job is not to think hey we need to go get this, go get that -- that's (general manager) Scott (Fitterer's) job -- our job is to get Sam as ready as possible.

"At any position, if we can make a significant improvement, we absolutely should. But we can also make a lot of improvements by our guys playing better this year than they have in the past, and I like where he's headed."

In his first year with Carolina, Darnold opened the 2021 season as the starter and led a hot start for the Panthers with a 3-0 record. The fourth-year pro was a catalyst of the team's eventual downfall, though, by producing just one win the following six weeks; that stretch also included his halftime benching in Week 7. A shoulder injury forced Darnold to injured reserve in Week 10, which resulted in the signing of Cam Newton. Darnold wouldn't appear again until Week 15 before rounding out the last two games of a lost season.

Darnold ended his 2021 campaign with 2,527 passing yards, nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 12 games (11 starts) for a team that finished 5-12. The Panthers offensive line didn't make life any easier for Darnold, who was sacked 35 times and lost six fumbles. The Panthers' 52 sacks allowed and 190.5 yards per game were at the wrong end of the top and bottom five of their respective categories.

While Darnold may gain confidence after hearing Rhule's words on Thursday, there were no guarantees given. The early assessment is likely to be considered a footnote in the ongoing saga of the Panthers' QB situation in 2022.

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