The Carolina Panthers are set to take on the Cleveland Browns at home in just two days. This is a once-in-a-blue-moon match up between out of conference opponents made familiar by the inside knowledge and personal motivations of the Panthers new and Browns former starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield. To get an inside perspective on that dynamic and the rest of a team who Panthers fans don’t know much about outside of sympathy cards, I asked Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature five questions.
Read on to learn more about the inner workings of Mayfield, the likelihood of Myles Garrett giving Ikem Ekwonu a big ‘welcome’ to the NFL game, and more!
Much has been made his entire career about how much better Baker Mayfield plays with a chip on his shoulder. Obviously, one could imagine a decently ridged Ruffle for this game against the Browns. How has that perceived attitude actually translated across his NFL career and what, if any, were your favorite moments of Baker motivating himself in that way?
Baker Mayfield carried himself the same way each week; he always seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder. I liked his energy on gameday, but because his demeanor is always the same, there was never really a distinguishable moment that made me think, “Baker really delivered this week because he was motivated.” I think the context of his situation for Week 1 against the Browns is a whole different situation.
Mayfield is at his best when he can play a bit loose and freestyle a bit. Early in his career, he had issues of bailing from the pocket too quickly when he didn’t need to, which is never a good thing. At his best, he found the right mix of staying in the pocket, making plays outside the pocket, and selling the hell out of playaction fakes to lead to some nice downfield plays. Two years ago, there were a lot of times when it would be 3rd-and-15, and I had an unusual sense of confidence that Mayfield was going to convert it with ease. That all changed last year, and I heavily attribute that to his shoulder injury (among other things with the wide receivers). I think there were times last year when Mayfield’s motivation of being too fired up actually cost him, because his mind was believing he could still rip it downfield accurately, but the shoulder wasn’t cooperating (even if it wasn’t the throwing shoulder).
Early odds by our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook have the Panthers barely favored in this opening matchup. Do you think that has more to do with Jacoby Brissett starting or Mayfield?
That depends on what view you have on both teams heading before seeing the odds. If Cleveland had Baker Mayfield still, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Browns were the slight favorite. If Deshaun Watson was starting in Week 1, then I’d almost be certain that the Browns would be the favorite. Now, I see the dropoff with Jacoby Brissett being the reason Cleveland is the underdog. It’s funny how a quarterback can dictate the odds line of a game so much, but that’s how it often works, especially early in the season. I think Brissett has shown he can win games, but he’s not a quarterback who is going to make the big throws downfield. Mayfield has a lot more upside, but neither quarterback has really had a ton of reps with the starting unit when you consider the amount of preparation an entrenched starter would typically receive. If there are other things impacting the odds from Cleveland’s perspective, it could be the uncertainty of whether right tackle Jack Conklin will play or not.
The Browns are rumored to have one of the better offensive lines in the league. Where do you think they struggle compared to their peers around the league and how might defensive coordinator Phil Snow try to attack that in his bid to stymie their offense?
The areas they won’t struggle at will be left guard and right guard, where Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, respectively, are both All-Pro caliber players. Left tackle Jedrick Wills, a former first-round pick, has been steady through his young career — not dominant yet, but not a liability. That leaves center and right tackle as the two positions that are most vulnerable. Normally, right tackle would not be included in that conversation, because Jack Conklin is a hell of a player. In late-November of last season, though, he tore his patellar tendon. It’s incredible that he’s coming back as quick as he is, progressing through individual drills, and trying to work his way up to starting on gameday again. As of today, it’s unclear whether he will try playing in Week 1, or if the team will be extra cautious with him. If Conklin sits, then whoever starts in his place will be the top player to attack. And even if Conklin starts, it’s still worth going after him because of any possible rust, the mental grind, conditioning, chemistry, etc.
The other position of wonder is at center, where Ethan Pocic will be getting the start. Cleveland had JC Tretter anchoring the position for the past few years, playing at an above average level. They drafted Nick Harris a couple of seasons ago to be their center of the future, though, so they parted ways with Tretter with the intent of having Harris start. Pocic was signed back in free agency to be an insurance policy at the position. Well, that insurance policy has kicked in, because Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury during the first preseason game. Pocic had some good run blocking grades with the Seahawks last year, but was panned for his pass blocking ability. I haven’t seen him play enough to comment, but the concern of him being a liability is lingering in my head.
Can Myles Garrett have a high school reunion or goat yoga class scheduled for Sunday instead? The Panthers are starting a rookie left tackle against one of the better edge rushers in the league. I guess this is less of a question and more of an invitation for you to explain how that’s OK and that Ikem Ekwonu is going to have a great learning experience opposite Garrett. Thanks in advance, I feel better already.
Unfortunately not, lol. On a side note, Myles Garrett has been excused from a lot of practices over the past month, because he is reportedly at the side of a close relative who is in dire condition. That won’t deter him from suiting up on gameday. We only have a limited sample size to work with for Ikem Ekwonu’s tape in the preseason, but even for the 6th overall pick, it’s natural to expect that Ekwonu will be susceptible to one of the best pass rushers in the game.
Garrett usually fares better early in the season, as the past couple years, a midseason injury has slowed him a bit down the stretch. One thing to note about Garrett is that you may go a couple of series, or even close to a full half with him being a non-factor (even when people assumed he would wreak havoc). But then, when your guard is down, he’ll get the perfect jump that leads to a game-changing strip sack.
This game is set up to be a match of strengths against weaknesses from both sides. Which match up is going to be the deciding factor for this game? Ekwonu vs Garrett, Brisset vs Jaycee Horn et al, or some other friction between these oddly matched teams?
I think the deciding factor will be if the Browns’ wide receiving group can find a way to step up. When Mayfield was hurt last year, we thought, “at least we have the best running game duo in the league.” But that didn’t mean much when opposing teams could cover our receivers with relative ease and they could seldom get separation.
Cleveland added Amari Cooper this offseason, but the rest of the group is very inexperienced and we haven’t seen them deliver yet. If that persists to start this season, then I expect defenses to play heavy against the run and dare the Browns to beat them through the air. I’m not even talking about a shootout; but we at least need semi-average receiver play to feel like the rest of our hard-fought efforts (i.e. on defense) aren’t wasted.