CHARLOTTE — The Panthers want to create competition at every position, but not every competition turns into a loser-leaves-town match.
While you can keep backup cornerbacks or receivers or offensive linemen, when it comes to specialists, there can generally only be one. And the Panthers have set up a decision this season between one of the most consistent players in franchise history, and a drafted rookie who could have a decade of service in front of him.
Special teams coach Chase Blackburn knows he has an interesting choice at long snapper, when it comes to JJ Jansen or Thomas Fletcher.
"I think they're both talented enough to play in this league and play for a number of years," Blackburn said. "I think J.J.still has a few years left in the tank, in my opinion, and Thomas is just starting. There's a lot of good football left between those two guys."
Of course, there's only room for one of them on the 2021 roster, so watching the competition develop will be one of Blackburn's toughest jobs this summer.
On the surface, it would seem like a simple call, since the Panthers invested a sixth-round draft pick in Fletcher, after working with the Alabama snapper for a week at the Senior Bowl.
Rookies have longer shelf lives, obviously, but the financial difference is easy to overstate. Since the 35-year-old Jansen's one-year contract includes a veteran discount, his salary cap charge is less than $295,000 higher than Fletcher's if the rookie makes the roster, so finances alone won't make the decision.
The fact that Jansen hasn't had a bad snap since the 2010 opener isn't the kind of thing you easily dismiss, and Blackburn said he could tell the addition of Fletcher has sharpened the veteran during recent workouts.
"J.J.'s had a tremendous focus coming into this camp," Blackburn said. "I think just that push has helped him kind of rejuvenate himself a little bit. Just that little extra drive and desire to be perfect on everything that he does and be laser-focused."
Having Jansen around also should make it clear to Fletcher that his drafted status shouldn't guarantee anything.
"I think it's also given Fletch a lot of competition," Blackburn said. "Because he's like 'Oh, just because I got drafted, it's not my job,' and making him protect more and understanding some of the small things that J.J.'s done in being able to play for so long.
"He's picking up a lot of those small details, and he's made a lot of strides in the last four or five practices."
Blackburn said there was a bit of a dip in Fletcher's performance when they started adding more protection work in practice, but that has since been ironed out.
"The first couple weeks, he was kind of going, and his velocity was good, his accuracy was good, and we started introducing a little bit of protection stuff. And you saw a little bit of dip just with the nerves. And then, after he's been settled in for four or five days, I think he's really picked back up. It'll be a good battle as we go through it."
There's a lot that goes into making a decision on the guy who delivers the ball to the punter and kicker. Blackburn rattled off a list of things of things he grades every day including: "Everything: Velocity, accuracy, laces, protection, cover ability, you name it. It all goes into it."
And Blackburn knows that the call will ultimately made above him, as the team considers whether to go with an aging known commodity, or a younger and unproven (and only slightly cheaper) model.
Late-round picks are often like lottery tickets, and if you get something out of them, it's a bonus. But Blackburn mentioned the possibility of finding value in specialists, since good ones can have long careers (like Jansen's 13 and counting). It's also worth noting that there's likely value in whichever one the Panthers don't keep. Jansen was undrafted in 2008, but the Panthers acquired him from the Packers for a future seventh-rounder, so trades for long snappers do happen.
Deciding which one to go with will be a decision for the front office later this summer. For Jansen and Fletcher, that means every snap during minicamp and training camp matters.
View photos from Thursday's OTA practice at the Atrium Health practice fields.