At Carolina’s first practice following the shocking trade of former first-round draft pick receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo in October, receiver Russell Shepard filled the tangibly awkward space left behind that morning with some audible musings.
“We need a nickname for this group,” he said, turning to a drill line that featured lanky Devin Funchess, and the diminutive forms of Kaelin Clay, Damiere Byrd and Mose Frazier. “How about ‘the runts?’”
The chaos this position has faced this year can be seen just by strolling down the receivers’ row of lockers in Bank of America Stadium.
There’s Brenton Bersin’s locker on the end, filled after he was brought back to Carolina hours after the Benjamin trade for a fifth time in six years. There’s the long-untouched locker of rookie second-round pick Curtis Samuel, who went on injured reserve this fall after hamstring issues all preseason. Next to that is Byrd’s locker, which will go unused with the former undrafted free agent on injured reserve a second time this season – just four games after his return from his first stay on injured reserve.
Then there’s Clay, who latched on like a barnacle to the 53-man roster, was peeled off and sent to Buffalo via trade before the first regular-season game, then brought back after Byrd’s first go-round on IR. There’s longtime special-teams star Shepard next to him, the former quarterback from Houston, Texas, who switched positions when he got swallowed on the LSU depth chart, became a rising target in Tampa Bay and came to Carolina in free agency this spring. Next to his locker is that of former Memphis walk-on Frazier, who spent 15 weeks on the practice squad before his promotion following Byrd’s transaction to injured reserve.
Wait, who? Who? And who?
Head coach Ron Rivera laughed loudly and genuinely when asked Wednesday what his reaction would have been if, in training camp back in August, he had been told his active receivers at the start of a playoff push would be Funchess, Clay, Shepard, Bersin and Frazier.
“That would be my reaction,” he said.
“We don’t have a lot of superstar mentalities in this room,” said Shepard, who wore Byrd’s No. 18 jersey at practice Wednesday in tribute to his teammate.
“We’re undrafted, (some guys) who were drafted high had to wait until their third or fourth year to prove themselves. We got a bunch of guys that nobody knew about, that came off the street.”
The “misfits,” he added. The “no-names,” the “rugrats.”
Underdogs. Or, as Clay put it, a lot of guys nobody wanted.
“You have a lot of guys that have been through a lot of things, that have had to overcome struggles and obstacles on and off the field,” said Shepard. “Guys who aren’t household names (or) big-money guys. I mean, those are the type of groups you want, because when they click and they believe in their ability, it’s a scary group.
“Certain guys, when they come in this league a certain way being a high draft pick or playing early, having a lot of success, they don’t know how to deal with adversity, or when struggles hit. And when it’s done the opposite way, and that guy finally believes himself and he gets that opportunity, those are the guys that, come game day, you’re kind of scared of.”
Scared of who? The rugrats? Who have, subtracting Funchess’ 792 receiving yards, 336 yards and 27 catches between them?
“We definitely are misfits,” said Clay. “A lot of us are looked down upon, or nobody really wanted. We take it, and we love it. ... A lot of us were no-names coming out, or we still are. But we love it, we love the role that we play on this team. We like being the underdogs.”
Despite mild-to-extreme panic circulating throughout the fan base following the loss of Byrd, it’s not as if quarterback Cam Newton is completely without targets on Sunday against Atlanta, and as the team prepares to make a postseason run.
“Ever since I’ve been here, the outside world is telling me I’ve been having a lot of people that a lot of people don’t know,” said Newton on Wednesday. “So this is nothing new to me. You’ve got a lot of hungry guys in that receiver room right now ready to prove themselves – proving it to the outside world, rather than proving it to themselves and this team, is more important.”
And Newton is certainly not panicking, himself. After all, he’s made a postseason run before with a handful of little-known receivers, and a couple of reliable targets (does 2015, with Greg Olsen, Ted Ginn Jr., Funchess, Philly Brown, Jericho Cotchery and Bersin ring a bell?).
Reliable tight end Olsen missed most of the year while on injured reserve with a broken foot, but has successfully been factored back into the rotation and has 143 yards and a touchdown over the last two games. Newton will likely also lean heavily on rookie Christian McCaffrey in the slot and as a pass-catcher out of the backfield as he has all season – McCaffrey has a team-high 75 receptions, which is the most by a rookie in franchise history.
And be sure that Atlanta won’t forget about Funchess, now the biggest “name” in the receivers group, whose yards per game and per catch more than doubled in the seven weeks following the Benjamin trade. Funchess can also stretch the field like Clay, and Rivera says that he is beginning to better understand the role of a No. 1 receiver, who is often in double coverage as teams try to neutralize him.
Clay will be the vertical threat for the Panthers, but don’t mistake his role as simply running straight-line go-routes. Clay’s job, and the job of the receivers rotating in alongside him will also be to create space in the intermediate portion of the field with crossing (drag or slant) and comeback routes, and to hold defensive backs accountable (unable to play too close to the line of scrimmage) with deep-ball ability. Shepard will largely be used underneath, as will Bersin. What Frazier can do on the field has yet to be established – he has played just four offensive snaps in his NFL career, all last week.
But don’t count the ‘no-name group’ out quite yet, because they aren’t counting themselves out.
Clay says he’d take this group of five receivers over anyone else’s in the NFL – scoff if you’d like, but he means it.
“I like what we do,” said Clay. “We’re a tough group. A lot of people don’t look at us as a tough group but we go in there and we block well, we catch the ball well, we make plays after we catch the ball. So I think, our group, going in the later part of the season is pretty good. We’re a little banged-up, but we go out there and give it the best that we can.”