Continuity is key as new Carolina Panthers special teams era dawns

After years of stability, special teams opens the book on a new era under Tracy Smith
Ihmir Smith-Marsette
Ihmir Smith-Marsette / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

While the Matt Rhule and Frank Reich-era Carolina Panthers units each encountered their fair share of struggles on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, one group that remained curiously consistent was special teams.

When Reich took charge, one of the few assistants he elected to retain from Rhule’s staff was special teams coordinator Chris Tabor. Ironically, he went on to become interim head coach halfway through the 2023 season.

Tabor’s retention meant much of the personnel and players stayed the same. Their production - though not the league's best - was in the upper half. Kickoffs and field goal totals fell on account of low offensive support.

Carolina Panthers special teams have a new coordinator and a familiar feel

That stability looks to change in 2024. General manager Dan Morgan and head coach Dave Canales did not retain Tabor again. They brought over Tracy Smith from the Seattle Seahawks, where he served as assistant special teams coach and worked with Canales from 2021-22.

In a press conference on April 11, Smith welcomed the opportunity and expressed optimism in his unit to get the job done.

“[They’re] a really tough group. Physical. Fast… Guys that care about the game.”

Smith inherits a unit full of longtime mainstays.

The punt team, anchored by Johnny Hekker, is a lineup fans may have felt a little too familiar with last season when Carolina punted the sixth most out of anyone in the league. The All-Decade veteran's average distance fell by two yards from 2022 and his punts landing inside the opponents’ 20 dropped from a league-best 39 in 2022 to 25 in 2023.

The team’s net yardage came out to eighth in the league. However, this suggests an issue of field position rather than Hekker himself.

Long snapper J.J. Jansen also returns, set to increase his team record of 243 consecutive games started for the Panthers.

As for kicking, there is less certainty about what Smith will do. Eddy Pineiro is reliable but missed three games last season and saw his accuracy drop from 94 percent in 2022 to 86%. This caused his name to appear on a Pro Football Focus list of cut candidates, though the new coordinator has given no indication he plans on making a change.

In the return game, Carolina re-signed Ihmir Smith-Marsette to a one-year deal. The speedy wide receiver returned 37 punts for 322 yards and a touchdown last season. He also emerged as a crafty gadget option for the team to deploy out of the backfield or on trick plays.

Smith-Marsette’s snap percentage rose to double digits for Weeks 13-17 after not being above nine percent beforehand. This could mean Canales and Smith have big plans for the player next season.

For kickoff returns, the Panthers brought back Raheem Blackshear, who averaged just under 27 yards per return in 2023, second in the league among anyone with 10 or more total returns. Between the aforementioned duo, Smith will have plenty of weapons to employ when it’s Carolina’s turn to take the ball.

New kickoffs poised to make things interesting

The NFL also announced rule changes to its kickoffs for the 2024 season. This brings an unknown factor to potentially complicate Smith’s first year in full command of a unit.

Similar to how the XFL handles kickoffs, the kicking team will line up at the receiving team’s 40-yard line (except for the kicker) but cannot move until the ball is caught or hits the ground. Touchbacks will now result in the opponent starting at their 30-yard-line instead of the 25. Onside kicks must be declared before the play begins.

Smith said teaching the new rules to his guys is a top priority, and a situation every team in the league will find itself in. He expects kickoff strategies to evolve as the season progresses and teams can study tape.

While the offense and defense undergo numerous changes to their starting lineups, special teams look poised to run it back with a familiar lineup from years past. Canales and Smith did well to show trust in players who had already established themselves with the previous regimes.

With new coaches and rule changes adding extra uncertainty to special teams in 2024, they will be sorely needed.