CHARLOTTE – Kicker Graham Gano believes he has found a home in Carolina.
Gano became the first of Carolina’s 20 soon-to-be unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the Panthers on Friday, signing a four-year contract.
“I’m really excited to be back in Carolina,” Gano said. “It is where my family and I wanted to be. I love the organization and feel this is the best place for me.”
The 26-year-old Gano is coming off a successful season, converting 24 of 27 field goal attempts while helping the team to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title.
He set a franchise record and tied for the NFL lead with six made field goals from 50 yards or more. He was the only NFL kicker with three or more attempts from 50 yards or more without a miss from that distance.
“The special teams unit was a large part of our success last year and we are excited to keep Graham as a part of our team,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a news release. “Graham has shown range and accuracy in his field goal kicking, and his strong leg has been a weapon for us on kickoffs.”
Of his 82 kickoffs, 76 reached the end zone, including 63 for touchbacks, the highest percentage in the NFL since 1994.
A five-year NFL veteran, Gano spent his first three seasons with the Washington Redskins. He has converted 92 of 118 field goal attempts in his career.
Gano tied the NFL record for most overtime field goals in a season with three in 2010, a mark previously accomplished by John Kasay for Carolina in 2003 and Jason Hanson for Detroit in 1994.
Gano feels like he has some stability on the team, which has helped his game.
“When I was in Washington I went through four holders and that took some getting used to,” Gano said. “I finally got comfortable there and made my last 14 of 17 field goals. I’ve carried over that consistency to Carolina.”
The Panthers used the franchise tag on Greg Hardy on Friday, preventing the outspoken defensive end from hitting the free agent market. Hardy will make $12.45 million next season.
Hardy, known by teammates as “The Kraken,” tied a franchise single-season record with 15 sacks in 2013 and was selected second-team All-Pro by The Associated Press. SportsIllustrated.com ranked Hardy as this offseason’s top NFL free agent.
Hardy led the Panthers with 38 quarterback pressures and posted a career-high 67 tackles last season.
“We are very pleased that Greg will be back with the Panthers next season,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said in a release. “He was a big reason we were able to lead the league in sacks last year and keeps our defensive line intact.”
The Panthers have until July 15 to sign Hardy to a long-term contract extension. After that date they can’t discuss a contract extension until after the season is over.
“The franchise mechanism gives us time to secure the services of a very good player while we continue to look at the future of Greg with the Carolina Panthers,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said in a release. “We have had great dialogue with both Greg and his agent. It was important to keep our defensive front together.”
Hardy and Charles Johnson are the only set of teammates to record 10 or more sacks in each of the last two seasons. They have combined for 49.5 sacks during that span, tied for most in the NFL.
A former sixth-round draft pick out of Mississippi, Hardy made the league veteran minimum salary last year.
Hardy said in January he would have no problem if the Panthers used the franchise tag on him after being selected to his first Pro Bowl.
“I would love a franchise (tag), man,” Hardy said prior to the playoffs. “Add another year on my career. Get to play football a little bit longer without a contract. Another year to be in Carolina just to get them a chance to get their fiscal responsibilities in order so we can be here forever, like Steve Smith and a lot of other guys.”
Hardy becomes the fifth player in Panthers history to receive the franchise tag, joining punter Todd Sauerbrun (2003), tackle Jordan Gross (2008), defensive end Julius Peppers (2009) and center Ryan Kalil (2011).