During the busy off-season, the Carolina Panthers have been working to improve parts of their game that were not as good as they hoped, but will it be enough make the playoffs? They certainly have the offensive firepower to do it utilizing quarterback Cam Newton’s arm and legs. The Panthers can score with anyone in the league.
It was when the offense was stopped that things did not go so well at times last season. Carolina ranked last in the league in net punting and 30th out of 32 teams in punt return average in 2011. They were ranked in the bottom 10 in average field position after kicking off and fielding kickoffs. Addressing these needs were priorities in the off-season.
Two players important to the kicking game last season and will be counted upon in 2012 to improve. Now in his 16th NFL season, placekicker Olindo Mare ranked second with 53 touchbacks and converted 22 of 28 field goals while making 44 PATs. Rookie Kealoah Pilares was fifth in the NFC with a 25.7-yard kickoff average, including a team record 101-yard return.
Improving the kicking game means bringing in competition for Mare, so the Panthers signed Justin Medlock, a former Canadian Football League kicker. Medlock, coming off a terrific season for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, hit 49-of-55 field goals, including a 57-yarder. Over his three year CFL career, he converted 96-of-111 field goals (86.5 percent) .
Joe Adams, a very exciting punt returner from Arkansas, was drafted in the fourth round, and should give the Panthers yet another weapon.
To address the punting problem, Carolina drafted Brad Nortman from Wisconsin in the sixth round, and signed a proven veteran, Nick Harris. Nortman is the first punter ever drafted by the Panthers and should make an immediate difference.
Averaging 42.1 yards (gross average) as a four-year starter for the Badgers, he is not only an excellent directional kicker, landing 69 of his 199 punts inside the 20 versus 19 touchbacks, but was known for his hang time (53 punts resulted in fair catches).
Harris will begin his 12th NFL season in 2012. He spent eight years as the starting punter for the Detroit Lions and punted for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season. He ranks 30th in NFL history in punts (876) and yards (37,213).
Another signing may not be glamorous, but having a quality, dependable long snapper on your roster is a key component to the special teams. After handling the long-snapping duties for every Panthers game in the previous three seasons, J.J. Jansen signed a four-year contract extension in March. He snapped more than 400 punts, field goals and extra points during those 48 games.
In addition to these signings, the Panthers also drafted or signed (via free agency) players they thought had the ability to play on special teams. D.J. Campbell (drafted in the seventh round) as well as free agent signees Kenny Onatolu, Haruki Nakamura, Reggie Smith and Mike Tolbert could play invaluable roles in improving the team this season.
Carolina’s commitment to improving special teams was not limited to players. They also hired Richard Rodgers as an assistant special teams coach to help coordinator Brian Murphy.
When Panthers training camp opens July 28 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, they will have enough players to put together nearly three full squads. Competition will be fierce, as it is in all 32 camps, but if the Panthers want to get to the playoffs, the best players will shine day-in and day-out.