CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This was supposed to be the Cam Newton game.
It was to be Newton’s homecoming, and a chance for the Carolina Panthers’ 2011 No. 1 draft pick to face his former team after releasing him before the 2020 season.
Instead, rookie quarterback Mac Jones leads the Patriots against the Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a matchup of 4-4 teams after Newton was cut before the regular-season opener.
Jones beat out Newton for the starting job in training camp and this year’s No. 15 overall pick from Alabama has been a pleasant surprise so far, leading all rookie QBs in completions (192), completion rate (68.1), passing yards (1,997), TD passes (nine) and rating (90.1).
Patriots safety Adrian Phillips said Jones isn’t a “rah-rah guy,” but exudes confidence.
“Cam was super confident, too,” Phillips said. “He exudes a lot of confidence as well. [Jones] seeing Cam, I don’t think that really dimmed his light. He’s a rookie, he understood sometimes you gotta follow before you can lead. He just waited until it was his time.”
Carolina coach Matt Rhule coached Jones at the Senior Bowl and walked away impressed.
However, the Panthers passed on Jones with the No. 8 pick, even though they needed a quarterback. Rhule felt the team had a more pressing need at cornerback, and Carolina went with Jaycee Horn from South Carolina instead, the first defensive player taken in the draft.
Horn broke his foot in Week 3 and remains on injured reserve.
“There was not a lot of doubt that he was going to be an excellent player, a long-time NFL player,” Rhule said of Jones. “I think Mac is a winner. He’s smart, he’s tough. We made the decision we made because we believe Jaycee Horn is going to be a dominant player. I wish he was playing right now.”
Meanwhile, Carolina’s quarterback situation has been unsettled since Newton’s departure, although the 2015 league MVP didn’t play well and struggled with injuries in his final two seasons with the Panthers.
Carolina replaced Newton with Teddy Bridgewater last year, but he went 4-11 as a starter and was traded to Denver. Sam Darnold, acquired in a trade with the New York Jets, hasn’t inspired much confidence that he can be a franchise QB either.
He’s 4-4 as a starter, but has struggled with decision-making and confidence and was benched in the second half of a Week 7 loss to the New York Giants.
The Panthers pondered the idea of trading for Houston’s Deshaun Watson after Darnold threw seven interceptions during the team’s four-game losing streak, but it never materialized because of the Texans’ asking price and the uncertainty over Watson’s off-the-field issues.
Walker up next?
P.J. Walker is preparing to start this week at quarterback for the Panthers with Darnold beginning the week in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
Walker, a former XFL star who played for Rhule at Temple, won his only previous start last year against the Detroit Lions despite throwing two red zone interceptions. Walker has five interceptions and one touchdown pass in his career.
He nearly threw an interception in the red zone last week against Atlanta and acknowledged he needs to make better decisions.
“All this is mental, it’s not a physical thing,” Walker said. “If I don’t see something, either throw it away or run it. Don’t just try to make plays.”
Gilmore v Pats
Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore admitted this week that this game means a lot to him after the Patriots traded him to Carolina earlier this season. Gilmore won a Super Bowl in New England and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.
Gilmore said he wasn’t pleased with how the Patriots handled his quad injury earlier this summer.
“A lot went on with that that I didn’t agree with and now that I am here, I am able to do the things I need to do to get me back and be ready to where I need to be,” said Gilmore, who played 17 snaps and had a game-clinching interception in Carolina’s 19-13 win over the Falcons last week.
He’s expected to see an increased role this week.
Filling the void
With Gilmore no longer a presence in the Patriots secondary this season, New England began the year searching for someone with his knack for takeaways.
Phillips has done his part this season to fill the gap. He has a career-high three interceptions and is coming off a two-interception performance, including a pick-6, in last week’s win over the Chargers.
“I put in the work for it,” said Phillips, who led the team with 109 tackles in 2020. “Being able to go out and take advantage of the opportunities that I was given and being able to be player of the week, that’s a big feat.”
Christian McCaffrey was designated to return from injured reserve this week meaning he is eligible to play Sunday after missing five games with a hamstring injury. McCaffrey has missed 18 of the team’s past 24 games with injuries. Carolina is 1-4 since McCaffrey’s injury and the offense has struggled.
Get your kicks
The Panthers appear to have (finally) solidified their kicking situation with Zane Gonzalez, who has made 13 of 15 field-goal attempts and 13 of 14 extra points. He was 4 of 4 on field goals last week vs. Atlanta, including a career-long of 57 yards to earn NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
Steve Reed, The Associated Press. AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower contributed to this report.