While there are still 11 men on the field during special teams plays, the strength or weakness of the unit hinges on four people: the kicker, punter, long snapper and return man. To avoid making this preview longer than it should be, we're only going to focus on those four players since the other seven will be made up of reserves anyway.
Also, a slight spoiler alert: three of the four positions are already set in stone, so there's not much speculation in this piece. With that being said, let's get on with it shall we?
Graham Gano returns to Carolina for his second full season as the team's kicker after a solid 2013 campaign where he was 24-for-27 in field goal attempts and a perfect 42-for-42 in extra point attempts. While he was nearly automatic when he lined up for a field goal try, one of his biggest contributions was limiting the opposition's ability to return kickoffs. Of his 80 kickoffs in 2013, 63 of them resulted in a touchback. Of the 16 that were returned, the average return was 23.4 yards.* Basically, Gano did his job by keeping the other team's offense deep in their own territory consistently, thus allowing the defense to have an advantage in field position.
Unless Gano's leg falls off between now and the start of the season he's going to be the team's placekicker. I'm sure there will be a camp body or two brought in to Spartanburg to save his leg for live game action, but no one should expect his job to be in jeopardy at this time.
* - Yes, I know that 63+16=79. I'm assuming he had one kickoff go out of bounds. But hey, at least it wasn't in the Super Bowl, amirite?!
Brad Nortman also returns to Carolina as the team's punter, and he's hoping to have a repeat performance of his 2013 season in which he improved on his mediocre 2012 campaign by punting for more yards, a higher net average and more punts downed inside the 20 while punting fewer times. If he can continue his upward trend he can develop into one of the best punters in the league, and on a team that's built around a stout defense a premier punter is a valuable asset.
As with Gano, unless something happens to Nortman between now and the start of the season he's going to be the team's punter. Of course there will be a camp body brought in to save his leg for when his punts will mean something, but don't expect anyone to take his spot just yet.
J.J. Jansen returns as the team's long snapper for his sixth season. There's an old saying in football that you don't notice you have a long snapper until he screws something up, and fortunately for Panthers fans Jansen is one of those guys who goes mostly unnoticed. While they are frequently unappreciated, the long snapper is the key to a team's kicking game because it's his job to ensure the holder and punter receive the football in the right place at the right time to keep the machine going.
While there aren't any stats to show how valuable he is, any Panthers fan who watches the team play on Sundays can see that Jansen is good at his job. It's for that reason that his place on the roster is in no danger whatsoever, barring the unfortunate injury between now and the start of the season.
Kick and Punt returner
Okay, now that we have the roster locks out of the way, let's discuss the return game. When the Arizona Cardinals signed the Whole Ginn Family to a three year contract this past offseason, the Panthers were left without a proven threat in the return game. In fact, before the Ginn Family arrived in Carolina last season the return game had become somewhat of a joke as the Panthers could never find a guy to provide any substance at the position. (Normally I would go into a 500 word spiel about this, but for brevity's sake I'm going to abstain.)
So, who's going to replace the Whole Ginn Family this year? From my vantage point it really comes down to three guys: Kenjon Barner, Tiquan Underwood and Kealoha Pilares (yes, he's still on the roster). I'm sure there will be others who get a crack at it during training camp, but unless one of the UDFAs makes a huge impact as a return man during the preseason it's hard to see anyone other than Barner, Underwood and Pilares getting the jobs when the games mean something.
If I had to make a prediction using math and stuff I'd say that there's a 95% chance we see Barner and Underwood as the kick returners and Pilares as the punt returner (assuming he doesn't get hurt again, obviously). But don't rule out that 5%, because it's possible that Tavarres King, Philly Brown or De'Andre Presley makes a big enough impact in Spartanburg to earn a spot. It's highly unlikely any of those three guys take one of the return jobs, but at least there's an opportunity for some competition that could be entertaining to watch in the blistering heat of summer.