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Position preview: Special teams

Posted Jul 16, 2012

When quarterback Cam Newton launched the football into the air last season, good things often happened.

When the football headed skyward off the feet of the Panthers or their opponents, the results were more mixed.

The Panthers ranked last in the NFL in net punting and 30th out of 32 teams in punt return average in 2011, and they ranked in the bottom 10 in average field position after kicking off and fielding kickoffs.

On the other hand, kicker Olindo Mare did rank second in the NFL with 53 touchbacks, and rookie Kealoha Pilares ranked fifth in the NFC with a 25.7-yard kickoff return average, including a franchise record 101-yard return.

The Panthers, however, don't plan on settling for silver linings this season. Instead, they've lined their coffers with a bevy of resources that could quickly turn around the fortunes of the units.

Carolina drafted a punter for the first time in team history, taking Brad Nortman in the sixth round, and signed a proven veteran in Nick Harris. The Panthers added kicker Justin Medlock to provide considerable competition for Mare, and they re-signed reliable long snapper J.J. Jansen.

That wasn't all. They drafted dynamic punt returner Joe Adams in the fourth round, and they kept the special teams abilities of players in mind throughout the draft (D.J. Campbell in the seventh round) and in free agency (Kenny Onatolu, Haruki Nakamura, Reggie Smith, Mike Tolbert).

They also added a coaching position, hiring Richard Rodgers as assistant special teams coach to help coordinator Brian Murphy.

A plethora of position players on every NFL team are asked to pitch in and bolster special teams, but only a few are true "specialists," players who work exclusively on special teams.

Here's a look at the Panthers' specialists heading into training camp.

KICKERS

Olindo Mare
Converted 22 of 28 field goals in first season with the Panthers. … Made 44 PATs – the second most in franchise history – but one miss on a blocked kick ended a streak of 212 dating to the 2003 season. … Ranks 14th in NFL history with 350 field goals and 16th with 1,530 points scored. … Entering his 16th pro season, including 10 at the start of career with the Miami Dolphins.

Justin Medlock
Coming off a standout season in the Canadian Football League, hitting 49-of-55 field goals – including a 57-yarder – for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. … Made 96-of-111 field goals (86.5 percent) over three CFL seasons. … A fifth-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007, missed the only NFL field goal attempt of his career in the regular season opener.


PUNTERS

Brad Nortman
The Panthers' sixth-round draft pick ranks third in Wisconsin history with a 42.1-yard gross average. … Four-year starter for the Badgers, landing 69 of his 199 punts inside the 20 versus 19 touchbacks. … Known for ability to precisely place punts and for hang time, producing 53 punts that resulted in fair catches.

Nick Harris
Beginning 12th NFL season, eight spent as starting punter for Detroit Lions. … Punted for Jacksonville last season but was released after the Jaguars drafted a punter. … Ranks 30th in NFL history in punts (876) and yards (37,213) and is NCAA Bowl Subdivision's all-time leader in both categories.


LONG SNAPPER

J.J. Jansen
Signed a four-year contract extension in March after handling long-snapping duties for every Panthers game the previous three seasons. … Over 48 games, has handled snaps for more than 400 punts, field goals and extra points and has made just one notable error – a botched punt snap in the 2010 season opener.