Panthers to start Baker Mayfield at QB with PJ Walker hurt

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Quarterback Baker Mayfield will return to the starting lineup for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday after an MRI over the weekend revealed that PJ Walker suffered a high ankle sprain in Thursday night’s win over the Atlanta Falcons.

Sam Darnold, who lost the opener to Mayfield for the starting job in training camp, will be the backup for the Week 11 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens.

This will be Mayfield’s first start since spraining his ankle in the Week 5 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He was replaced by Walker the following week against the Los Angeles Rams and remained healthy enough to play as the backup for the last four games.

Mayfield’s only playing time last month came in the second half of a 35-17 blowout loss at the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 7, when he led three scoring drives, going 14-20 for 155 yards and two touchdowns.

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Mayfield struggled to a 15.3 total QBR in a 1-4 start. That was the lowest in the NFL this season and the worst since ESPN began using the statistic in 2006. He had four interceptions and four touchdown passes in that stretch.

Interim coach Steve Wilks said the No. 1 thing Mayfield needs to do against the Ravens is “protect the football.”

A strong running game led by D’Onta Foreman should take some pressure off Mayfield, who was the top overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Panthers rushed for a season-high 232 yards against Atlanta and have averaged 159.5 yards in the last four games since trading star Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers. They averaged 89.9 yards in the first game with Mayfield starting.

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“Everything starts up front,” said Wilks, who has been committed to the running game since Matt Rhule went out after a 1-4 start. “We really have to do a great job of establishing the run. Pass, we have to do a great job of giving him a clean pocket so he can go through his progressions and get the ball down the field.

With Darnold returning from injured reserve last week and Walker playing well, the Panthers are looking at all their options at quarterback and may release Mayfield, according to a league source.

Walker was 2-3 as a starter, including Thursday night’s 25-15 win over the Falcons, keeping Carolina (3-7) a factor in the NFC South, which is led by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5). He suffered the injury in the fourth quarter, but it was never reported because, as Wilkes said, Walker “sucked it up and played through it.”

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Wilkes did not put a timetable on the injury, saying Walker will not go on injured reserve.

“A high ankle sprain is limiting his mobility … so we’re going to let him sit out this week and go with Baker,” Wilkes said.

Mayfield has plenty of experience facing the Ravens after spending his first four NFL seasons with the Cleveland Browns of the AFC North before being traded to Carolina in July.

In his eight starts against Baltimore, the Browns went 3-5 as he posted an 83.2 passer rating and threw 13 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

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