CHARLOTTE — The Panthers went into the offseason needing a punter.
They quickly moved to sign the punter of the last generation, and a guy who can add a little sizzle to their special teams.
By signing veteran Johnny Hekker to a three-year deal, the Panthers stabilized the position after using three different players there in 2021. They also added gravity to the job, since Hekker was named the league's All-Decade punter of the 2010s for his consistent excellent work with the Rams.
With a career average of 46.7 yards per punt, and the longest punt in Super Bowl history, there's plenty to be said about his talent.
But enough about his leg. Let's talk about Hekker's arm.
"Oh, he's got a great arm," said longtime Bothell High School coach Tom Bainter, who coached when Hekker led the Seattle-area school to a state final. "He was an incredible athlete anyway, a three-sport guy here. But he was an exceptional quarterback."
Hekker didn't start under center for the Cougars until his senior year, but kicked and punted while waiting for his turn to take over. He was good enough to get a late offer from Utah State to play quarterback, but realized over the course of his high school career that punting was his likeliest path to a football future.
"When I was looking at colleges and sent out a highlight tape, my high school coach made me put some punts at the end," Hekker said. "I got a call back from Oregon State special teams coach, and he said your best chance of earning a scholarship will be as a punter. We have a scholarship open for whoever earns that job. So I put all my eggs in that basket to go be a punter."
Bainter recalled those conversations with then-Oregon State assistant Dave Ungerer, who saw the potential in the 6-foot-5 Hekker.
"They just kept talking about his athleticism, and how long and tall he was at the time," Bainter recalled. "And I remember Dave saying, 'This is the kind of kid who could play in the NFL for 10 or 12 years.'"
He was right.
But along the way, there was always an opportunity to get back to his roots.
With a long relationship with legendarily aggressive Rams special teams coach John Fassel, Hekker got plenty of chances to throw along the way. He's 14-of-23 passing in his NFL career, for 186 yards with a touchdown and an interception, a solid 82.9 passer rating. There were even times when the Rams were hit with injuries that Hekker had to practice a bit as their emergency quarterback.
"I was a quarterback from pee-wee all the way through high school, so that was always part of my identity," Hekker said. "Thankfully was in college and had a special teams coach who was willing to roll the dice too, and had some fakes. Got to show that skill set to scouts and the people in the NFL as well, and landed in a place in St. Louis where coach (Jeff) Fisher and coach Fassel were drawing up some wild stuff. They let me loose, gave me some sight adjusts, said if they do this, we'll throw the ball."
Asked if he's talked with new Panthers special teams coordinator Chris Tabor about breaking out the trick plays here, Hekker just grinned.
"A decent amount, yeah," he said. "The communication is going to be ongoing. That's how it's got to be for success to show up, got to have great communication. From the get-go, he was talking me through the process, said this is how I could envision using you here, and it fit with things I've done in my career and what I hope to do in the future.
"I'm excited about this group of guys, a core group of special-teamers I can lean on and put my trust in, and we're just going to go out and have some fun and make some special plays."
The Panthers haven't delved into that kind of action often, with just four pass attempts by punters in franchise history (Joseph Charlton's 28-yard completion to Brandon Zylstra at Kansas City in 2020 was the last one). And for a place where the head coach once said "a punt is not a bad play," Hekker's got the ability to make it a more exciting one, too.
"It's all about taking what the other team gives you," Hekker said. "You don't want to force it; you want to be in the driver's seat. When you're on the punt team, you have the ball first, and not until it leaves your foot does the other team get a chance to have it. So you've got to utilize those two seconds until it comes off your foot."
Go behind the scenes with Hekker as he signed with Carolina on Monday.