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Zane Gonzalez embraces the circular path to Panthers kicking job

Zane Gonzalez

CHARLOTTE — Kickers may not travel in the same circles the way they used to, but it's still a small circle.

So it wasn't necessarily a surprise for new Panthers kicker Zane Gonzalez, when he checked his phone during a "chaotic" day Tuesday and saw a text from old Panthers kicker Joey Slye.

The two chatted briefly in pregames when the Cardinals and Panthers played the last two years. And they were teammates for a three-day minicamp in June, when Gonzalez was here as a tryout player. They It didn't work out for him then, but the kicking business is funny in that it tends to move circuitously.

"He actually congratulated me yesterday when I signed, so that's big," Gonzalez said of Slye. "It speaks on his character, honestly, and shows more about him than it does me.

"That's big, honestly, a big thing to do. I appreciate it. It shows confidence and gives me a little extra ease coming in here."

Gonzalez said he was hoping he'd have a chance to sign here in June. As he recalled, it was a "pretty much perfect" tryout, but the Panthers were still hoping that Slye would be their kicker this season, before a slump hit during training camp and the preseason that made it unworkable.

"I think Joey was still the guy at that point, and they were trying to make it work," Gonzalez said. "Joey is a great guy. It didn't really work out, so it eventually just came back full circle."

Of course, it wouldn't be a kicking change without a few extra loops thrown into the Venn diagram.

Gonzalez said he knew the guy he was replacing, Ryan Santoso, since they came out of high school at the same time. Gonzalez went to Arizona State and set an NCAA record for field goals made, while Santoso went to Minnesota. The two stayed in touch the way many kickers do.

Gonzalez said he hadn't had a chance to reach out to Santoso yet, but planned to, to extend the olive branch the same way Slye did for him.

But what he wasn't doing was rooting for Santoso to fail, even though every time another kicker misses an extra point, an unemployed kicker gets his wings.

"I'm a big karma guy, so I think that's bad karma there," Gonzalez replied when asked if part of him hoped other kickers missed to create job opportunities. "But I'm also as competitive as any athlete at this level, all the guys have been the guy for the most part so you want to be at that level. . . .

"All the kickers in the league keep tabs on each other. It's kind of a fraternity. So we check in on guys, see how they're doing, in a good way, in a positive way, not looking for negatives. But you're kind of aware of the situation, aware of where jobs might be available. It's kind of your job to be aware of that, so you can coordinate where the possibilities are."

Zane Gonzalez

In the past, kickers would often travel in the same circles on Tuesdays, showing up wherever the previous kicker struggled for group tryouts. With last year's roster restrictions because of COVID-19, more teams started keeping kickers on the practice squad to have one just in case.

That makes it harder to find one in a hurry. If a team signs a kicker off another team's practice squad, there's a three-week salary and roster-spot guarantee for that player. Of course, if a guy comes in and struggles, and needs replacing, they can always make him inactive, pay him, and go get another one. So there really is no true peace of mind for a kicker, but Gonzalez will take what he can get.

"Any time you get any security in this league, it's amazing," Gonzalez said with a grin. "So I take it where I can get it."

The Panthers would take some too.

They traded for Santoso in the preseason as Slye was struggling, but only owed the Giants a seventh-round pick if he was on the roster for two weeks. Since he missed that extra point last week against the Jets, the door was open to evaluate others, rather than cough up draft compensation. As they looked at Santoso's entire body of work, they decided to make a change.

It was essentially a business decision for the Panthers, and they opted with a more experienced kicker, so they didn't have to pay even a small price to keep a less-experienced one.

"It was just time to move on," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said of the decision. "We had Zane in minicamp; he was accurate, a guy we liked at the time, he was available, so we made that decision.

"Zane's kicked in the National Football League, he's been 88 percent over the course of a season, and having had him here in the summer was something for us as well. So knowing him and having a feel for him, I feel like he'll step right in."

Rhule referenced Gonzalez's 2019 season with the Cardinals, when he hit 31-of-35 field goals. The following year, he made just 16-of-22 (72.7 percent), and they changed directions and signed veteran Matt Prater. That sent Gonzalez through the loop of tryouts, here for a weekend, and onto Detroit for camp and some time on the practice squad.

In his rush to get here late Tuesday night, Gonzalez said he might have left his Amazon fire stick remote back at his place in Detroit, but knows he has to find a new home here quickly.

And a week from now, he might get a chance to see Slye again, as the former Panthers kicker got picked up by the Texans, and hit all three field-goal attempts last week.

It would be fitting, in a sense, considering the circle of life for kickers in the NFL.

View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Saints in Week 2.

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