This is the final installment of a 7-part series focusing on the position groups of the Carolina Panthers.
After 15 years of pretty much only John Kasay kicking extra points and field goals for the Carolina Panthers, the franchise put forth a new face at the vital position last season.
Olindo Mare had quite a career himself before arriving in the Carolinas, and for the first half of the season he acquitted himself quite well. There wasnt much talk about the team missing Kasay until struggles set in, notably over the second half of the season. Mare missed a few kicks and a position that has long been as stable as any in the organization is suddenly a bit shaky.
Mare converted 22 of 28 field goal attempts and had a streak of 212 made extra points end due to a blocked kick. Although Mare was good on just 60 percent of his kicks in the second half of the season, he finished the campaign at 78.6 percent, down from converting 83, 92 and 89 percent in the three previous seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
On the plus side, though, he led the NFL with 53 touchbacks, so leg strength isnt yet an issue for the 38-year-old.
Like Kasay, Mare has had a distinguished career. Hes 14th all-time with 350 field goals and 16th with 1,530 points scored. But those late-season misses have some in the organization concerned.
The Panthers signed rookie Adi Kunalic from Nebaska in December to give some competition to Mare. Kunalic never got into a game, but its understood he did well and a message was sent to Mare.
Mare signed a four-year, 12 million contract last offseason, with 4 million guaranteed. He will be the teams kicker when the season begins, but at what point will that hefty contract play a role in Carolinas decisions regarding the veteran?
Overall, the Panthers must elevate their special teams almost across the board to complement the expected improvements on offense and defense. They need to do a much better job at kick coverage, which ranked 27th in the NFL. The punt coverage was comparatively worse, as the unit ranked 30th and allowed three returns for touchdowns.
As important as some of the individuals previously noted are, the unit as a whole must get better. Quality depth with its personnel is a start. Part of the process is being healthier. The team was ravaged by injuries, and when players are shuffled around the depth chart, the special teams also take a hit.
We havent started the same group on defense, for the most part, and havent started the same guys on special teams because of that, coach Ron Rivera said late in the season. When youre moving guys constantly from being backups to starters youre taking guys off of what they normally should be doing.
As far as the other individuals on special teams go, Jason Bakers punting average dropped again to 42.7 yards per kick with five touchbacks and 19 kicks inside the 20. The longest of his 66 punts went for 56 yards. The 11-year veteran has spent last seven seasons with the Panthers and may be pushed in summer camp to keep his job.
Armanti Edwards returned 32 punts for an average of 5.5 per return. His long went for 17 yards. Edwards is also a wide receiver but hasnt been given much of an opportunity in games. Theres a belief around the franchise that of Edwards cant break into the rotation at receiver he may not make it to September.
Rookie Kealoha Pilares returned 23 kickoffs, including one for a 101-yard touchdown. He averaged 25.7 yards per return (fifth in the NFC) and showed tremendous promise. A fifth-round draft choice last April, it appears his job is safe.
Mike Goodson, Jordan Pugh and Edwards also returned some kicks, and for the season, the Panthers averaged 23.7 yards on 39 returns. The team also recently re-signed long snapper J.J. Jansen.
Carolinas special teams could improve if the team is healthier next season, allowing for the same players executing the same responsibilities each week. But even the regular need to upgrade their performances, as well.