Along the receivers’ row of lockers Wednesday at Bank of America Stadium, Devin Funchess kept yelling, “They let him out of the cage!”
It was a punny reference to fleet wideout Damiere Byrd, who did in fact fly high in the Carolina Panthers’ 27-17 victory over Houston in the exhibition opener for both teams.
Byrd caught four passes for 98 yards, including two touchdowns, in a breakout performance by a player who spent the past two seasons on the Panthers’ practice squad.
“This game really helped me take that next step,” he said.
Byrd, who went to high school in New Jersey, has never lacked speed – only size and playing time. Despite being the fastest player at South Carolina, Byrd was always the second or third receiving option for the Gamecocks.
The Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2015, but the 5-9, 180-pounder was viewed as something of a pet project of former receivers coach Ricky Proehl.
Byrd spent two years going against Panthers cornerbacks Josh Norman and James Bradberry as a member of the practice squad before being called up for the 2016 season finale at Tampa Bay.
Byrd had a 16-yard reception and a 31-yard kickoff return against the Bucs – a relatively small contribution that was big for his confidence.
“I always knew I’ve been a player and I’ve been able to play,” Byrd said late Wednesday night. “Even on those teams back in South Carolina, if you talk to anybody, they knew that I could play. You can’t control when you get the ball thrown to you. You can’t control how many reps you’re going to get. You can only control what you do with those opportunities that you do get.”
Byrd’s opportunities increased at training camp this year when rookie wideout Curtis Samuel injured his hamstring during the first practice at Spartanburg. Samuel, a second-round pick from Ohio State, was drafted to give Cam Newton a deep threat to replace the departed Ted Ginn Jr.
I always knew I’ve been a player and I’ve been able to play.
Panthers wideout Damiere Byrd.
With Samuel out, Byrd received more reps at Wofford – and made the most of them.
“Byrd’s been working for a long time. A lot of people don’t see that,” said third-team quarterback Joe Webb. “He was on the practice squad going against guys like Josh Norman and Bradberry from last year. He’s worked against the best guys.”
Webb connected with Byrd for both of his touchdowns against the Texans.
Byrd showed off his straight-ahead speed on the first score – blowing past corner Robert Nelson Jr. on a go route after the Panthers got the defensive look they were hoping for.
Byrd’s second touchdown – an 8-yard catch in the third quarter – exemplified his progress as a route-runner. Byrd lined up on the left side of the formation, ran an in route and found a hole in the Texans’ secondary.
Still, he said he enjoyed the deep ball better.
“It’s always going to be the longer one,” he said. “For me, catching a bomb is my forte and that’s the type of player I am. So whenever I do that, I’m always excited about it.”
Byrd, 24, is excited – but not overconfident – about his chances of making the 53-man roster out of training camp for the first time in his career.
Samuel has been running on the side at practices and appears close to returning. But Byrd has served notice that the Panthers have more than one deep threat.
“He separates from guys. And not only does he have speed, he has route-running ability,” Webb said. “He’s able to get open, not only on the outside but in the slot also. Byrd’s come a long way. I’m just proud of him.”
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn likes Byrd’s chances to make the Week 1 roster – and not only because Byrd also is a vertically challenged player and fellow Gamecock.
“If he keeps stacking games up like this, keeps showing up on tape (with) these (big) plays, you have no choice but to put this guy on the 53,” Munnerlyn said. “You can’t deny a guy like that.”