Entering Carolina’s fourth and final preseason game, the Panthers found themselves in both an enviable and unenviable spot at wide receiver.
The good news is that the team has more depth there than at almost any other position, what with Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, and a whole host of other pass catchers. The bad news is that the team will likely only keep six wide receivers on its final roster, meaning some of those “others” won’t survive Saturday’s cuts.
Behind Benjamin and Funchess, Russell Shepard and second-round pick Curtis Samuel (who injured his ankle in Thursday’s 17-14 loss to the Steelers) are locks to make the final roster. Damiere Byrd, in his second year out of South Carolina, has shown enough this preseason that he’s probably safe, too.
The question then becomes if the Panthers choose to keep five or six receivers. If six, then that last spot should come down to either Kaelin Clay, now on his fourth team in three seasons since leaving Utah, and Brenton Bersin, who missed his second consecutive contest with a shoulder injury. But if the team only keeps five, considering first-round running back Christian McCaffrey can play out of the slot too, then the battle for final spot – between Byrd and Clay – becomes much more exciting.
Both proved on Thursday that they deserve to make the roster. Clay had his best game this preseason by far, recording three receptions for 76 yards. That included a 47-yard bomb right before halftime, where Clay burned two defenders down the middle of the field. If not for a defender nicking his ankle on the way up, Clay would’ve had a 56-yard touchdown.
“When I looked at the replay, it looked like he touched me getting up,” Clay said. “I honestly didn’t feel anything ... those plays are kind of tough because they can be the difference in the score or the difference in myself, as well.”
Byrd ended up the beneficiary of Clay’s big catch. Three plays later, Joe Webb found him in the end zone for the 13-yard score, where Byrd held on even after a big hit.
“It’s kind of funny,” Byrd said. “ It seems like whenever we play at Bank of America (Stadium), I’m in the end zone.”
With the preseason now over, there’s not much either receiver can do now but wait. Rosters will be cut from 90 down to 53 by the end of Saturday; in a few days time, both men will know their fates.
In the meantime, each has a plan for how he’ll spend the next day or so. Clay, whose girlfriend is due with their daughter in a few months, said he’ll likely spend Saturday discussing baby matters with her.
As for Byrd, he’ll have a more hectic day. South Carolina plays N.C. State in Charlotte for its season opener, and Byrd said he wouldn’t dare miss his team playing in his city. Until then, both will just have to wait and hope they did enough Thursday to survive cutdowns.
“I think I’ve put enough on my resume,” Byrd said, “to show that I’m able to play on this team.”