Canadian kicker Lirim Hajrullahu signs with Carolina Panthers

Photo courtesy: Gary Zauner

The Carolina Panthers have signed Canadian kicker Lirim Hajrullahu to a practice squad contract, per NFL sources.

Hajrullahu had to pass six consecutive COVID-19 tests prior to entering the Panthers facility for a workout on Wednesday. There were two other kickers brought in by Carolina — veteran Chandler Catanzaro and Louie Zervos — and Hajrullahu beat them out for the contract.

Current Panthers’ kicker Joey Slye missed what would have been a 54-yard game-winning kick in Week 12 against Minnesota. The second year kicker has converted 24-of-31 attempts for Carolina (77 percent), though two of the misses have been from 65 and 67 yards, respectively.

In 2019, Slye made 25-of-32 three-point attempts (78 percent). He went unselected in the 2018 NFL Draft and spent the season out of football.

“Joey’s our kicker. Lirim really impressed everybody at the workout, did a nice job today in practice. He can kick and punt, he’ll be available but Joey’s our kicker this week,” head coach Matt Rhule said in his post-practice video conference on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Rams released Hajrullahu at the end of training camp in August. He was by far the best statistical kicker, but the Rams chose to start the season with Sam Sloman who LA selected in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL draft. Hajrullahu went 10-for-13 in Los Angeles scrimmages while Sloman hit 8-of-13.

The 30-year-old Hajrullahu played in all 18 regular season games with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2019, converting 47-of-55 field goal attempts (85.5 percent) and 26-of-28 single convert attempts (92.8 percent), while averaging 43.1 yards per punt on 106 attempts.

The five-foot-eleven, 205-pounder tied for first in the CFL in field goals made (47), third in scoring (162 points) and sixth in field goal percentage. Hajrullahu earned division all-star honours for the first time in Hamilton and second time in his career (2016 and 2019).

Born in Kosovo, Hajrullahu and his family fled the region when he was a nine-year-old as Serbian forces attacked their town. More than a million ethnic Albanians were displaced and 11,000 were killed in a war that lasted 18 months in the late 1990s.

The family ended up in a refugee camp in neighbouring Macedonia. The family bypassed a chance to immigrate to the U.S. and opted for Canada instead, ultimately settling in the St. Catharines area.

It’s been a unique path taken as Hajrullahu has earned his way to an NFL pay check.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.