CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In less than a year Panthers kicker Graham Gano has gone from a guy competing for his job to one of the highest-paid kickers in the NFL.
With the clock ticking toward Tuesday's franchise tag deadline, the Panthers locked up Gano with a four-year contract worth $17 million, including $9 million guaranteed, according to a league source.
The $4.25 million per-year average makes Gano the second-highest paid kicker in the league, just behind New England's Stephen Gostkowski ($4.3 million average) and slightly above Baltimore's Justin Tucker ($4.2 million).
Carolina announced Gano's deal about two hours before the NFL's tag deadline.
The Panthers were prepared to apply the tag to Gano, at a cost of nearly $5 million this season, to keep him from becoming a free agent if they were unable to get a deal done.
Gano, 30, gets more guaranteed money but one fewer year than Tennessee kicker Ryan Succop. The former South Carolina standout signed a five-year, $20 million deal, with $7.25 million guaranteed, to stay with the Titans last month.
Gano is coming off the best season of his career. He led the NFL and set a team record in field-goal percentage (96.7) after making 29 of his 30 kicks and earning the first Pro Bowl berth of his nine-year career.
It was a major bounce-back year for Gano, who missed eight field goals in 2016 -- including the potential, game-winner against Denver in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.
Gano's struggles prompted the Panthers to draft ex-Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker in the seventh round last year. But then-interim general manager Marty Hurney opted to keep Gano, and both he and Butker went on to enjoy strong seasons.
Butker would have been the cheaper option: He's set to make $555,000 in his second season in Kansas City.
But the Panthers also have a field-position weapon in Gano, who last season again led the league with a touchback percentage of 85.4. Gano landed a franchise-record 70 kickoffs in the end zone, including his first 15 of the season -- the longest such streak since the 1970 merger.
The Panthers began Tuesday $24 million below the NFL's $177 million salary cap, a figure that includes $4.4 million in unused cap room that rolled over from last year.
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