Carolina Panthers

With Gano out, Panthers turn to unproven kicker with a booming leg, Joey Slye

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The chattering you hear is from Carolina Panthers’ fans reacting to the news that Graham Gano, the team’s veteran kicker, has been lost for the season a week before the opening kick.

Now, by necessity, Carolina’s kicking game goes, by necessity, on the Slye.

Gano, a seven-season kicking stalwart for the Panthers, who lost four games to a left knee injury in 2018, never got pain-free in 2019. Little more than a week before their season-opener against the Rams, Carolina put the native Scot on the injured reserve list, shelving him for the entire year.

In doing so, Carolina turns over its kicking game to the intriguing but unproven backup, Joey Slye, he of the great build and the even better personal story.

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But can he kick?

Up to now, Slye’s accuracy has been shaky at best. But during the Panthers’ four preseason games, the Virginia Tech product was good on 7 of 8 tries.

And these weren’t chippies. Three of Slye’s makes were from more than 50 yards, including a 59-yarder that cleared the crossbar with room to spare in the Panthers’ final exhibition against the Steelers. His only miss? Blocked.

Still, Sly’s impressive showing does not erase an alarming fact. The Panthers have placed the single most important part of their special teams play on the foot of a kicker who has never kicked in an NFL game. That adds another major question mark to a Carolina team already short on exclamation points.

In comparison, Gano missed exactly 1 of 30 field-goal attempts in 2017. During last year’s injury-plagued season, Gano still went went 14 for 17, including a mythic 63-yarder to beat the New York Giants. The gap in proven performance among the two kickers remains profound.

Except, Gano can’t kick. Slye still must prove he can.

As for punting, Tennessee product Michael Palardy is back for his fourth season, appearing to improve by the year. Through his first 168 punts in a Carolina uniform, Palardy has averaged 45 yards (41 net yards) per punt and has not had a kick blocked or returned for a touchdown. Palardy is locked into a Panthers’ contract through 2021.

Another plus: J.J. Jansen remains the NFL’s most alliterative long snapper as well as one of the league’s best at hiking the ball.

Special teams starters

4 Joey Slye5 Michael Palardy

39 Reggie Bonnafon

39 Reggie Bonnafon44 JJ Jansen4 Joey Slye

D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel split return duties in 2018, but they’ve become too valuable as every-down receivers to rejoin the special teams — unless the game is on the line and the Panthers need an explosive play.

On kickoffs and punt returns, look for Reggie Bonnafon to grab the job because of three attributes the NFL greatly values: The Louisville product is young, has broad potential (Bonnafon played quarterback, running back and receiver in college) and he’s cheap.

Bonnafon told the Observer that he has return experience in college. Given his skill set, he says he’s more comfortable returning kicks than punts.

Thursday’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason finale featured Bonnafon’s first live reps as a returner in the NFL.

One of the Panthers’ surprise moves at the roster deadline was cutting rookie wideout Terry Godwin, formerly of Georgia. Godwin was believed to have a leg up in the return game and is a prime candidate to make the practice squad.

Godwin had some return experience in college — with one kickoff TD. Rivera and General Manager Marty Hurney began sizing him up for the job on draft night.

His performance in the preseason was mixed. Godwin unleashed Carolina’s longest punt return of the preseason — 57 yards against the Bears — but he’s also responsible for the special teams’ biggest mistake — a muffed punt against the Patriots.

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