Carolina Panthers

Panthers bring back a guy they ‘really like’ – and he could play Sunday at Tampa Bay

A happier young man than Kaelin Clay would be hard to find in either of the Carolinas on Wednesday afternoon.

Not only are his Los Angeles Dodgers ahead a game in the World Series, but he’s also back in the city he’s grown to love.

Clay, a speedy wide receiver from California (who is nicknamed “West Coast Clay” by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton), has returned to Charlotte after being claimed off waivers from Buffalo on Tuesday.

Originally brought in as a bit of a long shot, Clay won over the coaching staff and teammates with a strong and consistent training camp and preseason, both as a receiver and a punt returner. He made the original 53-man roster, but was traded to Buffalo before the first week of the season in exchange for corner Kevon Seymour, badly needed for depth in Carolina at the time, and a 2019 seventh-round draft pick.

“When we made the trade, and (general manager) Marty (Hurney) and I talked to him, we told him, ‘Look, we really like you. But they offered us somebody that we felt we couldn’t turn down,’” said head coach Ron Rivera. “I told him, ‘You just never know. Crazy things happen in this league. You could end up back here.’ And sure enough, the opportunity came up. Marty and I talked about it last night, he put the claim in and we got him back. He really was a guy that we like because he made the original 53.”

Clay, grinning ear to ear, said in the locker room Wednesday that when he got the call, he got to the airport as fast as he possibly could. While his experience in Buffalo was good, he said, Charlotte feels like home.

An All-American out of Utah who was drafted by Baltimore, Clay broke his foot and missed a year. But now, his timing couldn’t be more perfect. Carolina badly needs a vertical threat – a “burner” receiver who can stretch the field and hold defenses accountable – after first losing Ted Ginn Jr. in free agency and then Damiere Byrd to a broken arm early in the year.

Because Clay was with the team all throughout camp and the preseason, he knows the playbook. It is likely he will be activated as soon as Sunday afternoon in Tampa Bay, both as a receiver and as a punt returner.

“He came out today, and I think he just assimilated very quickly back into what we did,” said Rivera. “With (Devin) Funchess taking some limited reps, he practiced pretty well. It was good to see. He came back in and just picked it up. ... So yes, there’s a chance he could.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue