Carolina Panthers

Kicker, punter set, but return game? That’s where Panthers have options, decisions to make

Panthers receiver Damiere Byrd, right, appears to be the leading candidate to handle the kickoff returns. But the Panthers have plenty of options in the return game.
Panthers receiver Damiere Byrd, right, appears to be the leading candidate to handle the kickoff returns. But the Panthers have plenty of options in the return game. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano has a new contract, Michael Palardy has a firm grip on the punting job and head coach Ron Rivera has a plethora of options in the return game.

The Panthers went to Spartanburg last year with both their kicking and punting spots up for grabs.

But barring an injury to Gano or Palardy, there will be little drama at those positions this summer: There are no other kickers or punters on the roster.

But there will still be plenty of decisions for new special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn to mull, particularly among the returners. Blackburn, the former Giants and Panthers special teams stalwart, is one of three new coordinators on Rivera’s staff after taking over for Thomas McGaughey, whose contract was not renewed.

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Panthers punter Michael Palardy, left, and kicker Graham Gano, both had to hold off challengers last year at training camp. A year later, both are on solid footing. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Breakout candidate

Wide receiver Damiere Byrd’s return from a leg injury arguably will make a bigger impact to the Panthers’ special teams than the offense. Byrd, a former sprinter on South Carolina’s track team, had a 103-yard kickoff return last season that was the longest play in team history. Byrd and other kickoff returners could benefit from new rules that prohibit coverage players from getting a running start.

To be decided in camp ...

Byrd certainly looks to be the favorite to win the kick return role, but the Panthers have other options there and at punt return. Curtis Samuel averaged 22.1 on 10 kickoff run-backs as a rookie, while Kenjon Barner handled punts and kickoffs for the Eagles’ Super Bowl-winning team in 2017. Barner was signed after return specialist Fozzy Whittaker tore his ACL during OTAs.

Underdog to watch

Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson has elite speed that landed him a spot on LSU’s SEC-champion, 400-meter relay team in 2017. The Tigers did not use Jackson as a punt returner, although Panthers GM Marty Hurney brought up that possibility minutes after drafting him in the second round.

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Also keep an eye on ...

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Panthers running backs Christian McCaffrey, left and Kenjon Barner, right, both could play important roles in the return game, too. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Christian McCaffrey is a player that Blackburn can keep in his back pocket to use as a punt returner in a critical moment. McCaffrey averaged 7.4 yards per return as a rookie, although he didn’t break any longer than 25 yards. But the home-run threat makes McCaffrey a valuable weapon.

Three bold predictions

New kickoff rules or otherwise, Gano again will lead the league in touchback percentage.

Byrd will have another 100-yard plus kickoff return.

Palardy will average 42 yards per punt – and will notch his first career completion. Palardy drew a pass interference penalty on a fake-punt pass last year against Tampa Bay.

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