Kicker was the only position on the Carolina Panthers roster without any competition for the entirety of training camp.
The lack of addition spoke loudly about the team’s confidence in third-year kicker Joey Slye, perhaps more than any words could. But there were those, too.
“He’s our kicker,” general manager Scott Fitterer said at the start of training camp. “Every position, we’re always evaluating, if there’s a need we may bring someone in.”
Coach Matt Rhule said “Joey’s been good” during camp, and that working with two holders and two long snappers at the time was making him “mentally tough.”
Flash forward to the minutes following the Panthers’ second preseason game, and the message shifted.
“You have to produce, and so far Joey has not produced at the level we need him to,” Rhule said. “I think he’d be the first guy to say that. We have to find a way to get over that hump with him.”
After an offseason of improvement and change — including getting engaged — Slye, 25, came into camp feeling the team’s confidence in him. He also had flashbacks to his arrival in Spartanburg, SC, two years earlier, when he was trying out for the team due to starter Graham Gano’s left leg injury. He ultimately shined that preseason, making 7 of 8 field goals to earn the starting role.
Slye is coming off three total missed kicks in two preseason games — a 43-yard PAT, and 37- and 63-yard field goals. The Panthers have not ruled out the possibility of looking outside the organization for a kicker, if the right person becomes available.
CFL star Lirim Hajrullahu was with the team to start the offseason, but was released early during OTAs. Kicker Matt Ammendola was with the team, and then Zane Gonzalez tried out during the mandatory minicamp. All three are now on different NFL teams.
Searching for consistency
The issue for Slye has never been his leg — he has the strength for long kicks. That’s why the Panthers trotted him out on the field to attempt multiple historic kicks last season (resulting in him finishing 1-of-6 from 50-plus yards in 2020).
Consistency, however, remains a problem..
“I think one of the biggest things for me is the failures that I’ve had in certain parts of my career … certain failures and stuff like that, if you don’t learn from them, they end up being a true failure,” Slye told The Observer. “But each one of them are things that are learning experiences for me that I can kind of build off of.”
In two NFL seasons, he has made 90.1% of his PATs and 79.4% of his field goal attempts. Despite the missed kick Saturday night, almost all of his misses have come from 40-plus yards. Slye has only missed two regular-season kicks from inside 40 yards.
During training camp and the offseason program, he has been consistent, making the majority of his kicks — including long kicks. Rhule had the defensive players taunt Slye during one session of kicking attempts to simulate game pressure.
It’s part of the challenge the coach issued his kicker this offseason, after being non-committal at the end of the 2020 season.
“We kind of talked (at the) end of season and just had a nice one-on-one meeting, just kind of addressed some things” Slye said. “It was some real honest talk that I love to be able to have with a coach. I don’t like to be like kind of sugarcoat with stuff, I just want the honest truth.”
Finding the right solutions
In the meeting, Rhule and Slye identified specific areas in which the kicker needed to improve. Part of that was working on the mental side of kicking, with Rhule bringing up the idea of seeing a sports psychologist.
“The misconception of a psychologist is saying, ‘I messed up, I needed help, which is a whole other conversation,’” Slye said. “It is saying, ‘I work as hard as I do on my body, but if your brain doesn’t let your body do what it’s supposed to do, then you aren’t really working on anything.’”
Working with Dr. Joanne Perry, Slye has been focusing on improving his process. He also spent part of his offseason working with a nutritionist to monitor what he’s eating, and going beyond the physical preparations.
The hope was that committing to punter and holder Joe Charlton midway through camp would help give Slye stability, as well. The former South Carolina punter’s holding skills contributed to Slye’s kicking inconsistency last year. He had never worked as a holder until his senior year of college, but with a full year of NFL experience under his belt, his timing with Slye had improved.
“Last year, (Charlton) just had a lot thrown at him. Him stepping into year two, he’s now a veteran,” Slye said. “He’s got a year under his belt, and having a little bit more of an understanding of what we expect from him, what I expect from him.”
Despite all of that, Slye isn’t over the “hump” like the team had hoped.
Keep in mind: It’s a small sample size for Slye. In two preseason games, he’s 5-of-7 kicking field goals and 0-for-1 from a long PAT. There’s an opportunity to be overdramatic, while it’s early for serious alarm. With NFL teams facing roster cuts from 85 to 80 on Tuesday, the Panthers may have a shot at another kicker, or simply may look to add to their roster at that position anyway.
Gano has found success in New York after being let go in favor of Slye last year. He made 96.9% of his kicks in 2020. Gano’s current backup, Ryan Santoso, is reportedly drawing trade interest, despite not attempting a field goal this presason. The Panthers giving him a look would be the ultimate irony.
There aren’t any flashy names available in free agency, but many kickers will be on the wrong side of cut-downs in the coming days. Teams like the Cincinnati Bengals have two kickers that have made 100% of their field goals this year — Evan McPherson and Austin Seibert.
Either way, Slye will have a big test ahead of him with Friday’s final preseason game.