While it’s obvious that third-year Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess will slide over to the “X” spot in place of Kelvin Benjamin, traded this week to Buffalo in a move that stunned the league, what’s much murkier is who will start opposite him.
And Carolina likes it that way.
It could be dependable, physical inside-outside man Russell Shepard. It could be speedy rookie Curtis Samuel, the heir apparent to Ted Ginn Jr. as Carolina’s vertical threat. It could also be quick-cutting burner receiver Kaelin Clay, the constant underdog story.
It could even be (gasp) the irrepressible Brenton Bersin, who was the corresponding roster move for Benjamin after he had been released by Carolina for the fifth time in his career this preseason.
“We could be ‘the runts!’” Shepard joked at Thursday’s practice, trying with his teammates to come up with a good nickname for the position group.
That name might need some work. But the player who starts alongside Funchess doesn’t really matter.
The Panthers want to rotate players and mix up personnel groupings early and often.
“A lot of it will be dictated by who we play. Some will be dictated as to what (offensive coordinator) Mike (Shula) wants to call and the personnel groupings,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “So we could open up in a personnel grouping that could cause Curtis to be out there at the same time with Devin, and he could be there with two tight ends.
“He could call another one, you could have Shep and Curtis, call another one and you have Shep, Curtis and Devin. So it really is just going to depend on the flow of things, for Mike.”
Carolina wants more series like the one against Tampa Bay last week, when quarterback Cam Newton got the ball in the hands of three different running backs and four different receivers (plus a tight end) on a 17-play drive capped by a touchdown. Skill position players rotated in and out early and often, and many did so at multiple spots on the field.
So at the end of the day, Carolina’s coaching staff likely doesn’t care who starts. And from a game-planning perspective it’s probably better that Atlanta is still in the dark about it, too.
“We’ve got a good group of guys, and we’ve got to figure out the best combination,” Rivera said.