In less than a year Panthers kicker Graham Gano has gone from a guy competing for his job to one of the highest-paid kickers in the NFL.
With the clocking ticking toward Tuesday’s franchise tag deadline, the Panthers locked up Gano with a four-year contract worth $17 million, including $9 million guaranteed, according to a league source.
The $4.25 million per-year average makes Gano the second-highest paid kicker in the league, just behind New England’s Stephen Gostkowski ($4.3 million average) and slightly above Baltimore’s Justin Tucker ($4.2 million).
Carolina announced Gano’s deal about two hours before the NFL’s 4 p.m. tag deadline.
Never miss a local story.
The Panthers were prepared to apply the tag to Gano, at a cost of nearly $5 million this season, to keep him from becoming a free agent if they were unable to get a deal done.
Gano, 30, gets more guaranteed money but one fewer year than Tennessee kicker Ryan Succop. The former South Carolina standout signed a five-year, $20 million deal, with $7.25 million guaranteed, to stay with the Titans last month.
“He’s been very productive in his time here and he had as good a year as I’ve seen a kicker have last season,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney told the Observer.
“To solidify that position, which let’s be honest - he’s the guy that’s in position to win games for you - I think it was very important for us to get him signed and in the fold for four years.”
Gano is coming off the best season of his career. He led the NFL and set a team record in field goal percentage (96.7) after making 29 of his 30 kicks and earning the first Pro Bowl berth of his nine-year career.
It was a major bounce-back year for Gano, who missed eight field goals in 2016 - including the potential, game-winner against Denver in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.
Gano’s struggles prompted the Panthers to draft former Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker in the seventh round last year. But then-interim general manager Marty Hurney opted to keep Gano, and both he and Butker went on to enjoy strong seasons.
Butker would have been the cheaper option: He’s set to make $555,000 in his second season in Kansas City.
But the Panthers also have a field-position weapon in Gano, who last season again led the league with a touchback percentage of 85.4. Gano landed a franchise-record 70 kickoffs in the end zone, including his first 15 of the season - the longest such streak since the 1970 merger.
“It’s not only field goals with Graham, it’s (also) kickoffs,” Hurney said. “His leg is so strong. He just gives you so much versatility with the kickoffs (and) on field goals.”
The Panthers began the day Tuesday $24 million below the NFL’s $177 million salary cap, a figure that includes $4.4 million in unused cap room that rolled over from last year.