After going 3-for-3 on Thursday night, including hitting a 55-yard field goal against the Bears in the Panthers preseason debut, 23-year old Panthers kicker Joey Slye turned heads at Soldier Field.
But Slye’s performance doesn’t exactly mean there’s a kicker controversy brewing in Carolina.
Graham Gano, who has been the Panthers kicker since signing midway through the 2012 season, has been dealing with a similar knee injury that eventually landed him on injured reserve a season ago. But recently, Gano has been participating in practice, including kicking on the side during Sunday’s practice.
Although Ron Rivera is happy to have Slye on the Panthers roster, the coach indicates that the kicker job is Gano’s job to lose.
“We are very fortunate Joey was [available to sign] and has done a great job for us,” Rivera said. “In our mind, we have to be careful with Graham going forward. So we have Joey, and we will let Joey kick for at least probably one more game and then we’ll go from there.”
Gano played in only 12 games last season and hit 14 of 16 field goals attempts in 2018, including a 63-yard game-winner against the New York Giants in Week 5 – but those two misses were costly as they kept the Panthers from extending leads against Detroit or Seattle, both games Carolina would go on to lose.
Before the start of last season, Gano signed a four-year, $17 million extension with the Panthers.
The plan for Gano is to take the pressure off his plant leg – the same leg that landed him on IR last season – and allow him to get healthy and ready for the 2019 season. The team doesn’t want to rush Gano back so they’re not scrambling to find a kicker midseason should this injury pop up back up again.
“You have to be really careful,” said Rivera. “You don’t want it pop up [and] now you’re out there scrambling.”
“I think this has been their plan just to do this,” Gano said. “I know Joey, they’ve seen him kick before and he had a solid workout, and he has been doing really well here, and it’s fun to watch. Everybody says iron sharpens iron, it is true. I enjoy having him here and it has been good to kick with him.”
“I love competition, it’s always fun. I feel like it brings out the best in you, and it is good to have someone to push you and compete against.”
Carolina signed Slye on August 1 after he previously spent time with the Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After walking on at Virginia Tech, Slye became the Hokies’ all-time leading scorer. But Slye went 15-for-22 on field goal attempts during his senior season.
After his 55-yard field goal on Thursday, Rivera believes there are some teams paying attention to Slye during the preseason.
“He can kick his way into the league, that’s for doggone sure, and that’s what he is doing right now,” Rivera said. “I promise you, Chicago is paying attention to what happened. Look at what happened with Minnesota, they made a deal the other day – so there’s currency out there to be had.”
The Ravens traded kicker Kaare Vedvik to the Vikings in exchange for a 2020 fifth-rounder over the weekend and the Bears are likely in the market for a kicker after trying out two against the Panthers on Thursday – Adam Schefter reported that as many as four teams inquired about the possibility of Vedvik, who went 4-for-4 in Week 1 of the preseason, including a 55-yarder. So until Gano is ready to get kicking reps in to stay fresh and prepare for the regular season, Slye will continue to get an opportunity to show his ability.
The likely scenario will be to use Slye for Week 2 of the preseason and see where Gano is before making any transaction. But either way, expect Gano to be the Panthers kicker Week 1 when the Panthers host the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 8 at Bank of America Stadium.
“A healthy Graham [is] a guy that can help us,” said Rivera. “Absolutely.”