Special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn hasn't been able to watch Graham Gano in person during this year's offseason program, but Blackburn has received positive news on the kicker from head athletic trainer Kevin King.
Because Gano was an injured player last year, he's been able to go to the facility and receive instruction on rehab from King while team facilities have otherwise been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"He's been back in there, and he's been kicking. I've been getting updates from Kevin, and just everything's been going well," Blackburn said during a video conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Gano missed all of the 2019 season after he was placed on injured reserve in August with a left leg injury. That opened the door for undrafted rookie Joey Slye, who set a franchise record with eight field goals of at least 50 yards. In all, Slye converted 78.1 percent of his field goals and 88.6 percent of his extra-point attempts. Slye also had 66 of his 70 kickoffs go for touchbacks.
Since signing with the Panthers midway through the 2012 season, Gano has converted 85 percent of his 165 field goal attempts, and 95 percent of his 247 extra-point attempts.
Having both Gano and Slye healthy in training camp will put the Panthers in an enviable position compared to the rest of the league.
"The battle, as far as that's concerned — in reality, we're in a very, very plus situation because we've got two very capable kickers with really talented legs," Blackburn said. "There's plenty of teams around the NFL right now that'd be very excited to have the competition we have going.
"I think it'll play itself out regardless, as most things do in training camp at all positions. There's always competition and guys that come out of the woodwork that you may not have realized early on that they were going to be here, and it's going to be the same thing in this competition. We're going to have plenty of time to get there as we go when we get back to the facility — whenever it is — and we can work. We'll focus on it at that point."
Here are a few more highlights from Blackburn's press conference:
On adding free agent Pharoh Cooper at returner:
"I think he's proven. He's shown himself. Obviously, he's a talented returner and receiver. We have him back there; we have other guys that can do. DJ Moore can still return; Christian McCaffrey. We've got guys. We've got guys around. We've got young guys that can return. That's another exciting part is all these returners that have the capabilities and talent to do it."
On initial impressions of offensive coordinator Joe Brady:
"We were together a little bit before we got shut down, as well as at the Senior Bowl and Combine. We talked a lot of football at both places. He's just a football mind. He's always working. He's constantly improving. He's always looking for things. To me, (his) age and all that kind of stuff is relative. It's about how many hours you put in, the detail in your preparation and your ability to communicate with others and get the most out of other people. I think he checks every box. I think everyone in the building is excited we have him here."
On Blackburn's experience as a player during the 2011 lockout compared to restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic:
"There's definitely some similarities. I actually spoke with some of the players about it in another meeting. They're ahead of where we were during the lockout year. ... During that lockout period, we were not allowed to be around. As soon as the draft happened, all those draft picks were done. There were no rookie free agents. They didn't know what team they were on at that point because the free agency period for rookies didn't happen until after the lockout ended. So all those (rookies) are way ahead of the curve cause they have all of the information and they've been able to sit in the extra meetings and everything else, even if it's virtual. They've been able to really dive in and learn the mental part of the game instead of just worrying about some of the physical stuff."
On how head coach Matt Rhule has stressed the importance of special teams:
"He has shown through his words and his time commitment and his process and even his team meetings talking about special teams, showing clips and how things correlate to special teams – offense and defense. That doesn't always happen. Just the meetings he's had with me – the interview process was a multiple-tiered interview. You could tell he knew what he was doing. You could tell he knew what the verbiage was and that he was into it. And bringing (assistant special teams coach) Ed Foley along as well – another coach who's been around and coached it and has had success. There's just so much knowledge in that group, and they're going to give the devoted attention, time in practice, preparation and he's going to demand that we be great. (Special teams) is not a transition, it's a big-time play that can change ballgames."