Graham Gano feels safe heading into preseason finale, but Andy Lee shouldn't

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are still those who blame the Carolina Panthers' post-Super Bowl 50 collapse on Graham Gano and his missed 50-yard field goal in the final seconds of last year's 21-20 season-opening loss at Denver.

There are still those who believe rookie Harrison Butker, selected in the seventh round of the 2017 draft, will take Gano's roster spot when final cuts are made after Thursday night's preseason finale against Pittsburgh.

Gano isn't worried even though coach Ron Rivera said the battles for place-kicker and punter remained even.

First, Gano said he doesn't listen to those outside of Bank of America Stadium when it comes to criticism. Second, he feels confident the job that he has held the past five seasons at Carolina remains his.

"I've been here for quite a while and last year was a really great season [except for] the first game and last game when I had that broken ankle," said Gano, who appears fully recovered from offseason ankle surgery. "Yeah, it was frustrating at the end, but I was on pace to have my best year as a Panther.

"I'm healthy now and I'm hitting the ball as well as I ever have."

All indications are the Panthers will keep Gano over Butker, who has had a solid preseason. Andy Lee might not be so fortunate in his battle with Michael Palardy, who replaced the veteran punter last season when Lee went on injured reserve for a torn hamstring.

More on that later.

Recent history says keeping Gano is the smart thing to do. According to ESPN Stats and Information, veteran place-kickers have made 82.4 percent of their field goals since 2001 compared to 79 percent for rookies. The most glaring difference is between 40 and 49 yards, where non-rookies have been successful 74.1 percent of the time compared to 66.9 percent for rookies.

The difference was most drastic in 2016 when non-rookies made 84.9 percent of their kicks compared to 76.9 for rookies. From 40 to 49 yards the margin was wider, 80.2 percent to 66.7 percent.

So if you are a team like Carolina gearing up for a playoff run there are more risks with a rookie kicker, even one as talented as Butker.

"I'm not going to comment on that," Gano said.

But Gano did admit that the competition with Butker has "brought out the best in me."

Gano has made 3 of 4 field goal attempts. His only miss was a 50-yarder in the preseason opener against Houston that hit the upright. He has converted from 45, 37 and 31 yards.

Butker is 2-for-2, including a 51-yarder against the Texans.

Both consistently have put the ball deep into the end zone on kickoffs. Butker's advantage is he comes with a cheaper price tag. Gano, entering the final year of his contract, will count $4 million against the salary cap. Cutting him would save $3.1 million, money that could be spent on extending deals at other positions.

Butker is in the first year of his rookie deal that counts $665,781 against the cap.

Gano's advantage is experience and a history of making clutch kicks.

"This has been my best training camp in the nine years that I've been playing," he said. "I feel really good about the way I'm hitting the ball. I'm confident in the résumé I've put together this camp."

The Panthers also could save money by releasing Lee, but not as much as they would have before he restructured his deal during the offseason. The 35-year-old will count $2.2 million against the cap and releasing him would clear $1.9 million, according to ESPN's Roster Management.

Palardy counts only $540,000 against the cap this season.

The Panthers also are confident Palardy can do the job. He averaged 42.5 yards a kick in seven games last season and got stronger in the final two, averaging 46.7 yards.

Palardy has a slight edge on Lee statistically during this preseason with a net average of 44.7 yards per punt compared to 43.8 yards. His overall average also is slightly better, 48.8 yards per punt to 45.2.

So if the Panthers move on from a veteran kicker, it likely will be Lee.

Gano doesn't plan on going anywhere.

"Yeah, it's a competition," he said. "But kicking is a little bit different. I just worry about what I can control myself. I've had a great camp."