The Browns’ trade for Deshaun Watson was the NFL’s strangest offseason. They wanted more after Baker Mayfield got them to the playoffs. Now Mayfield can seek retribution when his Carolina Panthers visit the Browns on Sunday.
Mayfield can’t play Watson because he’s serving an 11-game ban for sexual misconduct. Jacoby Brissett, at 5.3 adjusted yards per attempt, will replace him.
Cleveland Browns vs Carolina Panthers
Vegas considers this game a toss-up because of Cleveland’s quarterback predicament (The panthers were slight favorites earlier in the week).
Like last season, Carolina has a chance to start well, but head coach Matt Rhule must go better than a 2-12 finish after a 3-0 start to save his job. Both clubs are on the outside looking in, but a season-opening victory might help them earn a wild-card place.
Baker Mayfield: Can He Get His Payback?
Mayfield’s first game for his new squad will be closely watched. His time with the Browns was certainly not without its ups and downs, and it ended on a dismal note in 2021 when he was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Despite his flaws, he is still a significant improvement at quarterback for the Panthers, who entered the season with Sam Darnold and a diminished version of Cam Newton.
As a bonus, it’s easy to forget that he had respectable stats the last time he was fully healthy. He had an adjusted YPA of 7.7, good for 14th in the league that year, and a QBR of 65.5, good for 10th. While he had a bad year in terms of sacks last year (9.3 percent), his lifetime rate of 5.7 percent was better than the league average.
Mayfield has a hard test against a strong Browns defense. The Browns have had enough practice time against him over the last four years, and they finished seventh in pass defense last season (third at 5.6 yards allowed per attempt).
Mayfield has an uphill struggle in this game because of the restricted participation of key defensive players such as cornerback Greedy Williams (hamstring) and safety Grant Delpit (hip).
When Faced With His First Major Challenge, Is Ikem Ekwonu Up To The Task?
The Panthers have had a weak offensive line for years, and in the sixth round of this year’s draft, they finally addressed it by selecting Ekwonu, a native of Charlotte who attended NC State. When he finally makes his regular season debut, he will be thrown right into the fire.
Now that Ekwonu has rapidly seized the starting left tackle position, he will be pitted against one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, Myles Garrett.
The two-time All-Pro has racked up 51.5 sacks throughout 57 games over the previous four seasons, placing him tied for seventh in the NFL.
The Panthers invested not just in Ekwonu, but also in guard Austin Corbett ($19.6 million guaranteed) and center Pat Elflein ($6 million).
As they play a squad that finished tied for ninth in sacks last year, they’ll need to improve their pass block win percentage from last year’s 29th-ranked 50% to have any chance (43).
Can North Carolina Stop The Running Game in Cleveland?
The Browns will have to depend even more heavily on the running game than usual with Jacoby Brissett graciously playing the caretaker position for this offense.
It’s worth noting that this is an offense that was sixth in the NFL in the percentage of plays in which it ran last season (46.0 percent).
Of course, there was a valid justification for it. Despite missing significant time with both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Browns finished with the highest yards per attempt average in the NFL at 5.1.
Even while the line has seen some changes—Corbett has moved on to Carolina and the Panthers have signed center Ethan Pocic to a one-year contract—it still has a good chance of becoming one of the best in the league (72 percent run block win rate, eighth in NFL).
Carolina was run over quite a bunch last season, but it was often because the Panthers were up for most of the game.
The Panthers were only tenth in yards allowed per game (11.8) but were fourth in yards allowed per play (6.5). (4.1 ypc). The additions of linebacker Damien Wilson and defensive end Matt Ioannidis should help this unit better stop the run.
Our Final Prediction: Panthers 23, Browns 20
The Browns would be big road favorites if Watson were playing, but having Brissett under center makes a world of difference. With Rhule and Mayfield playing for their NFL futures, the Panthers should have just enough to start the season on a high note.