The Panthers’ long list of unrestricted free agents is a little shorter.
Kicker Graham Gano, who solidified the position for Carolina after more than a year of inconsistency in the wake of John Kasay’s release, became the first free agent to re-sign with the Panthers when he agreed to a four-year contract Friday.
The deal is worth $12.4 million with incentives that could take it to $13 million, and includes $4 million in guaranteed money, according to a league source.
Gano, 26, connected on 24 of 27 field goals in 2013, including a franchise-record six (in six chances) of 50 yards or more that tied for the NFL high.
Gano also was effective on kickoffs. His 77.8 touchback percentage was the NFL’s highest since 1994.
Gano said he started talking to the Panthers about an extension near midseason, but the negotiations were put on hold during the team’s playoff push.
“This is the place I wanted to be. This is where I wanted to kick. I’m just glad both sides were able to come to an agreement,” he said in a phone interview.
Gano, who made $715,000 last year, might have drawn a more lucrative deal if he’d tested the market. Bears kicker Robbie Gould recently signed a four-year extension worth $17.9 million, with $8.85 million guaranteed.
“There was a possibility we might have been able to get a little more financially elsewhere, but I see what type of opportunity we have here with this team,” Gano said. “I love winning, and I see us winning a lot more games.”
Gano’s deal is comparable to the four-year, $12 million deal the Panthers gave Olindo Mare in 2011 to replace Kasay, who was let go because his diminished leg strength forced the Panthers to employ a kickoff specialist.
Mare, who was 38 when he signed with the Panthers, lasted only a year before being cut following a disappointing preseason in 2012. Justin Medlock, a CFL kicker who beat out Gano, was released midway through the season.
Enter Gano, who agreed to a two-year, $1.33 million contract after working out for the Panthers alongside a couple of other free agent kickers.
After making 9 of 11 field goals in six games during his first season with the Panthers, Gano established a career high by connecting on 88.9 percent in 2013.
“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 release. “Graham has shown range and accuracy in his field goal kicking, and his strong leg has been a weapon for us on kickoffs.”
Gano, who spent his first three seasons in Washington, likes the vibe in the Panthers’ locker room. After arriving at Bank of America Stadium on Friday morning to sign his extension, Gano said long snapper J.J. Jansen and punter/holder Brad Nortman began “bombarding” him.
“I’ve seen some of the worst early on in my career in the NFL, having losing seasons and what not. There were great guys in Washington, but we had some rough times,” he said. “I’ve never seen the type of camaraderie like I’ve had here, from high school to college to the NFL. Hopefully we can keep that going.”
With Gano re-signing, left tackle Jordan Gross retiring and defensive end Greg Hardy getting the franchise tag, the Panthers have 18 players eligible for free agency, which begins March 11. Gano said it “meant a lot” to be the first free agent to re-sign.
“It shows me that they value me as a player,” he said. “Hopefully, now that I’ve signed, they can sign a lot more guys, get the ball rolling, get the team back together and we can start focusing on next season.”
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