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Carolina Panthers

Panthers enter free agency with a choice at kicker

Zane Gonzalez, Eddy Piñeiro

CHARLOTTE – The Panthers find themselves in a peculiar spot when it comes to kickers heading into free agency. The catch is that it's a different kind of peculiar this go-around.

Instead of searching desperately for a good option, they have a choice between two good ones.

Zane Gonzalez, who the Panthers signed a week into 2021 to find some consistency after a whirlwind at the position for several seasons, is set to return from a second warm-up-related injury to his quad that ended his year before it started. He'd already fallen injured once since getting to Carolina – a season-ending quad injury before a Week 15 matchup against Buffalo in 2021.

But Gonzalez's replacement for last season, Eddy Piñeiro, showed enough upside through his one season filling in that it could make a tough decision. Piñeiro heads to free agency after making 33 of his 35 field goal attempts (94.3%), the second-best in a single season among Panthers' kickers with at least 30 attempts. His 33 makes in 2022 rank second in Panthers' history for a single season, behind 37 from longtime Carolina kicker John Kasay in 1996.

Zane Gonzalez

Carolina has yet to reach a consistent place with its kickers since Graham Gano injured his plant leg at the end of the 2018 season, spending all of 2019 on injured reserve before his release ahead of the 2020 season.

The Panthers have used six kickers since Gano's last attempt in Carolina, a list of fill-ins and unsuccessful attempts at long-term solutions that includes Chandler Catanzaro, Joey Slye, and Ryan Santoso from Week 14 of 2018 through Week 1 of 2021.

They signed Gonzalez in September 2021 hoping to end the cycle, and Gonzalez was quite good when he was on the field. He had a career year for the Panthers in 2021, hitting 20-of-22 field goals (90.9 percent). But those injuries late in 2021 (leaving Lirim Hajrullahu to finish the year), and last year in the preseason leading to Piñeiro, opened the door.

The Panthers have Gonzalez on the books through 2023. He said in January that he "felt close to 100 percent" and would be ready to return healthy this year.

"Here we are at the end of the season, I feel 100 percent ready to attack the offseason," Gonzalez said on locker room clean-out day. "I'm ready to get going and hit the ground running."

Eddy Piñeiro

Piñeiro had a dramatic season at Carolina that ended on a streak of 19 made field goals and a game-winning 42-yarder at New Orleans. He missed two potential game-winners midway through the year at Atlanta but bounced back and didn't miss another field goal afterward.

Piñeiro also has history with special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, as the two were together in Chicago in 2019, and he has expressed interest in returning to the Panthers.

"I would love to be here," Piñeiro said in January. "I was just talking to (punter Johnny Hekker), I'm like, 'Man, you guys make my life so much easier.'"

Piñeiro will hit free agency after his stint at Carolina, one of six teams he's been a part of since joining the league in 2018. He's spent time in Oakland, Chicago, Indianapolis, Washington, and with the New York Jets before the Panthers. He has kicked for the Bears, Jets, and Panthers with a career field goal percentage of 90.1 percent (54-of-71) with a 93 percent clip on extra points (66-of-71).

Piñeiro's background is similar to several kickers who will also hit free agency this season. The pattern isn't necessarily consistent – some are former journeymen who played into larger contracts with a team, while others remain in fill-in roles and smaller paydays – but there is the groundwork for kickers who find flashes of success after long journeys.

Here's a look across the NFL analyzing this year's free-agent kickers who have hit multiple spots before landing at their current stop, a group large enough to show that fill-ins like Gonzalez and Piñeiro are finding success more often than in the past.

Greg Joseph

Played their way into more money

Two kickers ended 2022 with more money after stints with multiple teams, and varying degrees of success, on their way there.

Greg Joseph and Michael Badgley are set to become free agents after seasons with the Vikings and Lions, respectively. Each earned at least $1 million over the last year, according to Over The Cap's average per year, after taking non-linear paths to get there.

Joseph has been at Minnesota since 2021 and made $2,433,000 in his second year with the Vikings in 2022, per Over The Cap, his most valuable contract. He had previously signed with the Dolphins, Browns, Panthers, Titans, and Buccaneers in various roles from 2018-20.

Before 2021, Joseph had only kicked in 14 games for the Browns in 2018 (17-of-20 field goals, 25-of-29 extra points) and two games for the Titans, making 9-of-9 extra points with no field goal attempts.

Joseph hit two game-winners in his first year at Minnesota, finishing the season with an 86.8 field goal percentage on 33-of-38 and a 36-of-40 clip on extra points. He returned with a more lucrative contract in 2022 but recorded a less-consistent 78.8 field goal percentage (26-of-33), though one make went 61 yards in a game-winner against the Giants and set a Vikings record for longest-made field goal.

Badgley started his career in 2018, going through preseason with the Colts before he was waived at final roster cuts and signed by the Chargers midway through the year. He played 10 games in 2018 and eight games in 2019 before he finished his first complete season in 2020, making 24 of his 33 field goals (72.7 percent) and 36-of-39 extra points (92.3 percent).

He was signed by the Titans in 2021 and played one game for injured Sam Ficken, missing his one field goal attempt and going 1-of-2 on extra points. He then landed in Indianapolis a second time midway through the year, playing in 12 games for injured Rodrigo Blankenship and making 85.7 percent of his field goal attempts (18-of-21) and all 39 extra point attempts.

Badgley signed to the Bears' practice squad on Oct. 1 last year and was elevated for one game, making all four of his kicks, before he was released. He signed with the Lions' practice squad afterward and was promoted to the active roster on Oct. 29, making 20-of-24 (83.3 percent) of his field goals and all 33 extra point attempts in Detroit. Over The Cap set Badgley's current average annual earnings at $1,035,000.

Cameron Dicker

Journeymen still on their way

Some kickers hitting free agency this year have yet to find a solid level of consistency or find themselves in a cycle of short-term jobs.

Chase McLaughlin has spent time with eight teams since he went undrafted in 2019 – the Bills, Vikings, Chargers, 49ers, Colts, Jaguars, Jets, and Browns – and he has appeared in games for six of them, putting up a 78.8 career field goal percentage (67-of-85) and 97.8 percent (88-of-90) on extra points. He played in 16 games for the Browns in 2021, making 15 of his 21 field goal attempts (71.4 percent) and 36 of his 37 extra points (97.3 percent). When the Colts released Blankenship after Week 1, McLaughlin came in and made 30-of-36 field goals (83.3 percent) and sailed all 21 extra-point attempts.

Brett Maher will hit free agency after his one-year, $965,000 contract with the Cowboys expires. Since 2013, he has spent time with the Jets, CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Ottawa Redblacks, and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Browns, Commanders, Texans, Cardinals, and Saints, before his third stint in Dallas last season.

His campaign started strong in 2022, making 29 of his 32 field goal attempts (9-of-11 on kicks of 50 yards or more) and going 50-of-53 extra points. But he missed four of his five extra-point attempts in the Cowboys' Wild Card game against the Buccaneers, the most missed extra points in a game in NFL history.

A unique situation unfolded for Cameron Dicker in his rookie season last year. He started his career with the Rams and was released in August, signed with the Ravens later that month and was released two days later, and ended up on the Eagles' practice squad on Oct. 4. He made two field goals in his NFL debut against the Cardinals, punctuated by a game-winner in the final two minutes, but he was released Oct. 29 after Jake Elliott returned from injury.

The Chargers picked Dicker up that week for their practice squad, and he made another game-winning kick in his first game there against the Falcons. He was signed to their active roster later that month after an injury to their starter, and he kicked a third game-winning field goal against the Titans to help Los Angeles make the playoffs.

Dicker finished his rookie year, making 21 of his 22 attempts (95.5 percent) and all 24 extra points across two teams. Since he has fewer than three accrued seasons, Dicker will become an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he cannot negotiate with other teams if the Chargers offer him a one-year contract at the league minimum.

There are a number of higher-value, higher-age free agents including decorated kickers such as Mason Crosby (38), Robbie Gould (40), and Matt Prater (38), but the Panthers have been part of a trend lately of finding productive kickers on the fringes, and finding something resembling stability. Now, they have a choice to make.

Eddy Piñeiro played two seasons in Chicago (2019-20) followed by a season with the New York Jets (2021).

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