The last time the Carolina Panthers held a kicker competition, they pitted veteran Graham Gano against a young kicker in 2017. After a drawn-out preseason, they opted to stay with the Gano, who wound up earning his first Pro Bowl nod.
The player they let go, however, was Harrison Butker, one of the game’s brightest kickers now on the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Panthers face a similar situation this August with Gano competing against another rookie, this time former Virginia Tech Hokie Joey Slye.
Carolina’s competition has an extra twist because Gano has yet to appear in a preseason game. The 32-year-old is still recovering from left leg injury that ended his 2019 campaign, leaving the coaches unsure when he might return.
“It is uneasy, to be honest with you,” Rivera said at Monday’s practice, via the Charlotte Observer. “Because again, you want him to be able to kick to make sure everything’s fine. We’ll know hopefully in the next day or two.”
Gano’s injury could cause timeline problems
The Panthers’ first regular season game isn’t until Sept. 8 against the Los Angeles Rams, but they’ll have to make some sort of decision before then. Teams have to finalize their 53-man rosters by Aug. 31.
Carolina is still hoping Gano will be able to kick in their final preseason game this Thursday, but a short week doesn’t help help that case.
“Well, we’ll see,” Rivera said. “Hopefully what’ll happen is, in the next day or two as he continues going through his process of working back to health, we’ll know whether he’s going to kick or not. If he’s able to, he most certainly will. That’s for sure.”
It would be hard to let go of Gano, who has been among the league's best kickers the last few seasons when healthy. He led the league with 96.7 percent accuracy in 2017 and was 14-for-16, including a game-winning 63-yard boot, last season.
Still, Gano has his downsides. Not only was he the 10th-oldest kicker in the league last season, he’s also the third-highest paid player at his position. Gano still has $5.6 million in dead cap, meaning the Panthers wouldn't save any money this season by cutting him, but Slye does represent an intriguing alternative.
Other teams will be monitoring the Panthers’ competition
Dubbed the “swole kicker” by his teammates, Slye's leg power lives up to his bulky appearance. The 23-year old has made field goals from 54 and 55 yards in his 6-for-6 preseason. Both of his point-after tries were successful as well.
After the Panthers cut Butker, who they drafted in the seventh round of the 2017 draft, they tried to stash him on their practice squad, but he didn’t last even two weeks there before the Chiefs swiped him up. That would likely happen again with Slye.
The Chicago Bears have a notoriously bad kicking situation, and they will undoubtedly be keeping an eye around the league for possible solutions. Plenty of other teams could use upgrades as well, so the Panthers will need to make sure they’re not letting go of another Butker again.
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