Rivera happy with Kelvin Benjamin
It’s just basic math.
Last September, Carolina’s first 53-man roster of the season had six receivers on it. This year, they may keep the same number.
They have 12 on the roster in training camp, not counting running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey. The first three spots are filled: Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess are the premiere pass-catchers, followed closely by Russell Shepard, who has built a promising resume in camp thus far.
It’s also unlikely they cut rookie second-round draft pick Curtis Samuel, who has missed all but one day of training camp and most of the spring with a hamstring injury, and whose recovery timetable is still unknown.
Let’s assume Samuel returns in time for the opener in September. That means there are two spots available, and eight players who want ‘em.
Carolina is looking for a combination slot threat and burner-type receiver to replace lightning-fast Ted Ginn Jr., who left for New Orleans in free agency.
They are also looking for a jolt in the receivers room, after a stagnant 2016 season full of long-developing routes that just didn’t work when combined with a constantly collapsing pocket and receivers who got about as much separation from defensive backs as a boat gets from a barnacle.
These players, ranging from now-training-camp-veteran Brenton Bersin to rookie undrafted free agent Austin Duke, all have a few things in common: Other than Samuel, they aren’t superstar names – not even close. But they’re smokin’ fast.
In fact, most have had media appearances and all have declined to share who is the fastest in the room, though if we’re going by facial expressions, each thinks he’s that guy (except for Bersin, who admitted with a bashful laugh that it’s “probably not” him).
Most pose a vertical threat for Carolina’s offense. Most are capable of posing a threat in underneath routes – versatility that is valued and necessary in the position group as Carolina “evolves” its offense. Some can return punts and kickoffs, another skill the Panthers are looking for.
And they’re all hungry.
This year, there is just one massive round of cuts to finish the preseason, from 90 players to the official 53-man roster. These receivers will have an extended amount of time to prove themselves in camp and in preseason games.
So, who are they? And how do they make the team?
Because of his consistency so far in camp – and his experience as the veteran receiver in the group at just 27 – Bersin earned a spot on the team’s first unofficial depth chart of the preseason.
“A lot of people overlook what Bersin does on a daily basis,” said veteran safety Kurt Coleman. “But I think he’s one of the best route-runners that we have.”
But the true “frontrunner” spot may belong to Damiere Byrd, a fast little South Carolina wideout who has been with the team since his pickup as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Byrd is one of the team’s go-to return specialists, and believes this is the year he can shoulder his way into a key role – replacing Ginn – after all but disappearing on the roster in 2016.
Keyarris Garrett, a 2016 undrafted free agent pickup, has also had a strong camp but still has yet to find his footing as a go-to target. Carolina has hoped that Garrett, a 6-foot-4 former Tulsa phenom with 34-inch arms, continues to evolve. But with a room this crowded – and with long-bodied receivers Benjamin and Funchess ahead of him – his spot is a challenging one.
The young playmakers
Duke, a former Charlotte 49ers star, went to Baltimore to throw with quarterback Cam Newton before training camp. The extra work helped develop a friendship with Newton that earned him the nickname “Dukie” and the early nod as one of Newton’s favorite targets as training camp opened. A rookie can expect his training camp experience to be full of peaks and valleys, and it appears Duke’s path is back on the rise as the second full week of camp opens.
Duke wants a shot in Carolina so badly, Coleman, who sits next to Duke in team meetings, had to talk him down a little this week as the team prepares to open the preseason.
“He was getting so jittery for the game,” said Coleman, who advised Duke to relax, and “just keep being himself.”
Fellow undrafted free agent signing Fred Ross also had a really promising start to camp, but has an undisclosed injury that has rendered him inactive for the last three practices.
Mose Frazier, a University of Memphis product, was a little-known name in the Carolinas until he grew to fleeting infamy in the spring. On a physical play during minicamp, Frazier took a swing at Panthers star linebacker Luke Kuechly’s head. It was an unpopular move, but Frazier is not an unpopular player after approaching Kuechly to apologize and shake his hand after the incident.
While they’d rather it not be punctuated with a punch, the Panthers have liked Frazier’s attitude in training camp since – he told the Observer last week that he’s held an underdog mentality his whole life after making it out of a rough Memphis neighborhood. Frazier is physical on routes and has been consistent when he’s gotten his touches, which he feels is his edge. He shows up early, works hard, and takes advantage of his opportunities.
“I’m consistent with everything I do,” he said. “I pay attention (to trying not to have drops). I think I’m just one of the most consistent receivers right now at this point. That’s what I think will help me out.”
The track star
Trevor Graham, a late addition to the players in Spartanburg, is the oldest player in the group at 28. An N.C. State football and track standout, Graham said in his introductory press conference that he thinks he’s one of the fastest players in the NFL. Backing that up with both his feet and his hands is crucial for Graham as the preseason opens this week.
Kaelin Clay knows a little something about redemption.
As a talented receiver at Utah, Clay became infamous for breaking loose on a play while up 7-0 against Oregon, and then dropping the ball on the 1-yard line as he trotted into the end zone. It was returned for a 99-yard Ducks touchdown, and the momentum swing resulted in a thorough drubbing of the Utes. Clay went viral for the wrong reasons.
But Clay went on to be all-conference as a receiver and an All-American return specialist before being drafted by Tampa Bay in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. He bounced to Baltimore that same year and was waived after fracturing his foot and heading to injured reserve. Now, he’s healthy again and has a shot with Carolina.
Clay is on a hot streak in camp right now as he shows his ability to extend plays on shorter routes and his talent on burner routes. He may be peaking at the right time with several huge plays over the past few days, but he told the Observer that his roller coaster of a career has taught him not to put too much faith in the high moments and focus instead on staying even.
He even re-watches the clip of his Utah mistake sometimes, as motivation.
How they earn a spot
Consistency is key for this group, as well as speed, separation and the mental fortitude to make a big play under pressure as it builds throughout the preseason. Health is also huge: With Samuel out, there is more opportunity to make an impression on the staff.
What will also give some of these players an edge is how well they can contribute on special teams – and Byrd, Clay and Duke may find an advantage here as they have been worked out in rotation (with Byrd taking the most reps) as return specialists.
In the exhibitions – starting on Wednesday against the Houston Texans – coach Ron Rivera said that while the team’s starters will run through their paces a bit, the guys he really wants to throw out there are the players fighting for that last few roster spots.
“Mostly, we want to take a good look at those seconds and thirds,” said Rivera. “We feel we have a good group of guys. There’s somebody out there with some speed.”