Carolina Panthers

Panthers special teams were sturdy, not spectacular, in 2018. Will status quo changed?

So, the list of special teams highlights for the Carolina Panthers last season is pretty short:

Graham Gano’s 63-yard game-winner against the Giants obviously comes to mind. Not only was that the longest field goal made in the league last season, but it was just one yard off the all-time longest field goal in NFL history.

But aside from that, what other special-teams moment from the Panthers last year really qualifies as “standout?”

That’s not to say Carolina’s special teams were bad or unreliable. Gano made 14 of his 16 field goal attemptsalbeit in just 12 games. That’s not quite the spectacular 2017 year he had, when he made 29 of 30 kicks en route to his only Pro Bowl appearance, but Gano was still dependable. He also made 30 of his 33 extra point attempts, which falls about in line with his career average.

As for punter Michael Palardy, his net average on punts last year, 41 yards per attempt, was 12th-best in the league. Considering the small margins among punters — the NFL-high in 2018 was just 43.2 yards of net average per try — that’s a reliable mark from Palardy. He also was good for a few punts downed inside the 20, although that’s one area where he could improve in 2019.

Long snapper J.J. Jansen is one of the league’s best, too, so there’s no worries where he’s concerned.

Really, the Panthers’ lack of sizzle on special teams comes back to their return game. The Panthers didn’t score a single return touchdown last year after recording just one in 2017. It’s not atypical for teams to go an entire season without a return TD — it happened to 22 clubs last season — but that doesn’t mean Carolina deserves a pass.

For all the electric players on this team, figuring out the return situation has to be among coordinator Chase Blackburn’s highest priorities. That begins in less than a week, as the Panthers open training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg on July 25.

Breakout candidate

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New Panthers receiver Rashad Ross has spent time with several NFL teams since going undrafted out of Arizona State in 2013, but most recently led the AAF with seven touchdown catches. Rick Scuteri AP

Rashad Ross is the only player on the Panthers roster to have scored a return touchdown in the NFL, so he’s currently the favorite to handle kickoff duties. Ross led the now-defunct Alliance of American Football with seven touchdown catches during the league’s existence — and it doesn’t hurt that he has legitimate 4.3-speed.

To be decided in camp

Who are Carolina’s primary return men? While DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel split that burden for a large chunk of last season and are more than capable, are they too integral on offense now to risk injury on special teams? It wouldn’t be a shock if one of those two still receive kicks, but otherwise the battle should come down to Ross, seventh-round pick Terry Godwin, and utility man/running back Reggie Bonnafon.

Underdog to watch

Coach Ron Rivera said after the draft that Godwin would get an opportunity in the return game, even though the former Georgia Bulldog didn’t do much of that in college. His readiness may determine whether or not he makes the final roster.

Also keep an eye on...

Moore’s ball security. The 2018 first-rounder proved how difficult he is to bring down with the ball in his hands, but he also had four fumbles

Three bold predictions

Ross earns the starting kickoff return job, but Samuel backs him up as the second option.

Moore starts the season as the team’s primary punt returner, but as he grows into an offensive focal point, will ultimately cede the role.

Ross earns his keep and honors his late father with a kick return touchdown against his former team Washington in Week 13.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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