One of the most important battles at Carolina Panthers training camp at Wofford College will take place at a position most don’t pay that much attention to in the preseason – kicker.
After veteran starter Graham Gano missed more field goals than in any previous season as a Panther (eight), including three in the season-finale loss to Tampa Bay, head coach Ron Rivera remarked that competition would be brought in for Gano, as well as for every other position on the team.
Rivera stayed true to his word as the team drafted its first kicker in history – Georgia Tech’s Harrison Butker, in the seventh round.
Gano and Butker got along well in organized team activities and minicamp, but as Rivera said, the real competition starts in training camp.
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Butker has every quality needed to be this group’s next star. He proved to have a little ice in his veins during his sophomore year, when he hit a 53-yard field goal as the game clock ran out to send Georgia Tech into overtime against Georgia.
He also hit all 46 extra point attempts and 15 of 17 field goals for an .882 percentage that led the ACC his senior year (and ranked No. 13 nationally). Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman mentioned his prowess as a kickoff man as well – Butker had a .740 touchback percentage, which ranked sixth among FBS kickers.
By using a draft pick on Butker, the Panthers sent a message to Gano about their expectations, and indicated they do believe the rookie has a shot at making the team.
To be decided in camp ...
Butker and Gano will be the main event, but keep an eye on young punter Michael Palardy as well. He provided some great insurance as a mid-season pickup when starter Andy Lee went on injured reserve. Lee is the starter, but Palardy is good competition and a valuable fringe asset.
Also keep an eye on ...
As Panthers fans are watching the kicking battle unfold, they should note the importance of the team’s high-quality veteran long snapper, J.J. Jansen.
The glue of the entire specialists unit, Jansen’s consistency puts him in the upper echelon of players at his position.
Plus, if the long snapper goes under, essentially the entire special teams unit does, too.
Two bold predictions
▪ Gano – who had surgery this offseason to repair a broken bone in his plant foot – keeps his job. Despite a poor 2016 season, the Panthers know what they have, but he stays on thin ice.
▪ Like last season, Gano gets a shot early in the year to make a game-winning kick. Unlike last season against Denver, he makes it.