Of all the roster decisions Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera will make over the next 24 hours or so, some of the toughest will involve players who are on the field the least.
NFL specialists never seem to get much attention until they miss a field goal, shank a punt or botch a snap – or form two of the most intriguing position battles throughout the preseason.
The Panthers’ kicking and punting competitions feature an old-versus-young storyline and will go right down to the Saturday deadline for teams to cut their rosters from 90 to 53 players.
Incumbents Graham Gano and Andy Lee entered training camp as the favorites to win the placekicking and punting jobs, respectively.
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But challengers Harrison Butker, a rookie kicker from Georgia Tech, and left-footed punter Michael Palardy kept the pressure on with solid showings during the exhibition season.
Butker, 22, the seventh-round pick who was the first kicker ever drafted by the Panthers, did not miss a kick during the preseason. He was 2-for-2 on field goals, with a long of 51 yards, and showed off a strong leg on kickoffs.
Gano, 30, was 3-for-5 on field goals, bookending his preseason with misses from at least 50 yards – each of which bounced off an upright. That’s also how the 2016 season began for Gano, who doinked a 50-yarder off the left upright in Denver that would have won the Week 1, Super Bowl rematch against the Broncos.
Gano said this week he was confident that the kicking job was still his. But how confident are Hurney and Rivera in Gano at this point?
Despite Gano’s misses, Lee – who also holds for placements – believes Gano remains one of the best kickers in the NFL.
“The two kicks that Graham missed were over 50 yards. That’s a 50-50 kick for any kicker in the NFL,” Lee said. “It hit the post, so he missed by an inch. So it’s not like he’s spraying it way out. He’s hitting the ball well in practice. Butker’s done well, as well.”
Butker is the cheaper option. He’s set to make $465,000 this year, while Gano has a salary cap number of $4 million.
The question the Panthers’ decision-makers are asking is how comfortable would a team just two years removed from the Super Bowl be starting the season with a rookie kicker?
The mercy of the bounce
The punting situation also looks like a toss-up after Lee and Palardy finished the preseason with similar numbers.
Palardy, 25, the Panthers’ punter last season after Lee injured his hamstring in Week 10, averaged 47.5 yards on 10 punts, with a long of 56.
Lee, 35, had a 45.9-yard average and a long of 58.
One difference: While Lee did not have any touchbacks, three of Palardy’s punts rolled into the end zone, including two in Thursday’s exhibition finale against Pittsburgh.
“I got two really unlucky bounces on my two touchbacks. So that was the kind of unfortunate part. You want to eliminate those touchbacks,” Palardy said. “But sometimes you’ve got to be at the mercy of the bounce and sometimes it doesn’t always go your way. Other than that I felt like I hit it pretty well.”
Because of their depth at the positions, the Panthers have gauged the trade market for their specialists, Lee in particular.
But at this point any team interested in the Carolina kickers or punters might be inclined to wait for the Panthers to cut two of them.
A place for both?
Lee has been a part of two trades the past two years, including the deal last summer that brought him from Cleveland to Charlotte. He says hearing his name pop up in trade talks again definitely “makes you think.”
“Obviously I want to be here,” he said. “It’s a business. I understand that part. I’ve been a part of it a long time.”
However things shake out in Charlotte, Lee believes both he and Palardy will be punting in the NFL this season.
“Mike’s been a great competitor. He’s a good punter. He deserves to play in this league,” Lee said. “I have a feeling that no matter what that we’re going to be on a team this year. I can only sit back and wait and see what happens.”
Palardy, a former Tennessee player, said the competition with Lee has been “healthy.” After Palardy’s first touchback against the Steelers, the first person to greet him and give him a fist bump on the sideline was Lee.
“I don’t know what is going to happen. That’s not really up to me. It’s not my decision to make,” Palardy said. “Hopefully I’ve shown I can play and I can play on a consistent level. Hopefully, whether it’s here or somewhere else, somebody likes that and sees (something) they like.”