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Carolina Panthers

Raheem Blackshear expects to "run it back" 

Raheem Blackshear

CHARLOTTE – Raheem Blackshear isn't at the top of the running back depth chart, and he's only going into his second year in the NFL, but it'd be fair to say he's carved out his place on the Panthers' roster as a reliable option returning kickoffs.

With the NFL's new kickoff rule, allowing the ball to be placed at the 25-yard line on kickoffs if a fair catch is called behind the 25-yard line, Blackshear knows fewer opportunities could be around for players looking for roster spots.

The rule, which has been used in college football since 2018, could also help mitigate the chance of injury on kickoffs, and Blackshear said he sees that benefit as well. But his overall thoughts were a fitting statement coming from someone who benefitted from a special teams opportunity as an undrafted rookie last year. 

"It's going to help a lot of people (who) get concussions, stuff like that," Blackshear said. "I feel like the con of it is like a lot of people making the team and stuff, (it's) going to hurt their chances of making it with this new rule. So it's a plus and a minus."

Originally an undrafted free agent out of Virginia Tech signed by the Bills after the 2022 draft, Blackshear was picked up by Carolina ahead of Week 3 after he was waived by Buffalo. He splashed as a kickoff returner in his first regular-season appearance, bringing back seven kickoff returns for 200 yards (averaging 28.57 yards per return) in a Week 5 game against the 49ers.

With injured return specialist Andre Roberts missing all but three games in 2022, the door was open for Blackshear to compete for the spot – and he became the Panthers' pick, leading the team with 19 kickoff returns for 513 yards, the 16th-most in the league last year.

It was a statistically strong season for a rookie returner. Isolate players with at least 19 returns in 2022, and Blackshear's 27 yards per return average rank fifth. His 66-yard kickoff return in a Week 9 trip to Cincinnati tied for the eighth-longest return in the NFL last season.

Raheem Blackshear

Blackshear finished his rookie year as the Panthers' fifth-most productive rusher behind D'Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard, Christian McCaffrey (for six weeks in Carolina), and Sam Darnold, running for 77 yards on 23 attempts with a touchdown – much less prolific than his work returning kickoffs. But he has had a strong spring, and with an apparent emphasis on backs as receivers in their new offense, he could have a role there as well.

Once the new kickoff rule passed in May, Blackshear sat down with special teams coach Chris Tabor. The coach's messaging was crystal clear, and Blackshear didn't seem to have any qualms with it.

"Coach Tabor told me I better never fair catch it," Blackshear said. "So I have no plans on fair catching the ball at all. It's a rule to help people out; definitely going to decrease the chances of concussions and stuff. But me personally, I'm not fair catching."

Tabor has a host of Panthers working kickoff and punt returns ahead of his second season in Carolina. Along with Blackshear, Hubbard and Laviska Shenault Jr. have continued to practice kickoffs after bringing back five and three, respectively, last season. Shi Smith largely handled punts last year (23 returns for just 143 yards), while Blackshear brought back six.

But veteran Damiere Byrd – the last Panther to score on a kickoff return with his 103-yard touchdown in 2017 – is back in town, and new addition Marquez Stevenson has experience returning kickoffs and punts too.

"I think it's just an open competition right now," Tabor said. "We have some guys that we're kind of working through. … It's going to be a work in progress. But I'm excited about the guys that we have just because I know how hard they work, and that'll give us a chance."

As for Blackshear, he said he knows what Tabor expects from their conversations. And heading into his second year with more confidence (a natural byproduct of no longer being a rookie), Blackshear has a clearer picture of what he brings to the table.

"When we sat down and talked, he gave me some good tips about it," Blackshear said. "Told me that (the rule) is going to help some people, but said you're a tough running back, so I'll expect you to run it back."

Check out photos from Panthers practice during mandatory minicamp.

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