Damiere Byrd has grown used to living on the edge in what is now his fourth season trying to make the roster for Carolina Panthers.
Each summer Byrd is not a “yes” or a “no.” Instead, he is a “maybe” — a 5-9, 180-pound speedster whose durability is an open question.
“Every year they bring in new people to play,” Byrd said recently after a Carolina Panthers practice. “I’m always going to be that hungry guy looking in. .... I’ve always got to fight for my role.”
The Panthers obviously tried to upgrade their speed at wide receiver this offseason, adding Torrey Smith and first-round draft pick D.J. Moore to the rotation of players who will catch passes from quarterback Cam Newton. Then there is similarly fast Curtis Samuel, a second-round draft pick in 2017. And then there is Byrd, trying to fly once more after being grounded on injured reserve two different times last season.
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“The kind of offense we have is primed for people like me — fast guys who can make plays,” Byrd said.
The Panthers have long seen something in Byrd and have kept the former South Carolina standout around for years, nurturing his ability — mostly on the practice squad.
In 2017, Byrd finally got a real shot at playing. Then he broke his forearm in Week 4 against New England. That knocked him out for half the season, but he returned with a flourish in December.
Against Green Bay, Byrd scored the first two touchdowns of his career — both on pass receptions. The following week against Tampa Bay, Byrd took a kickoff back 103 yards for an electrifying touchdown.
“I think I was really coming into my own,” Byrd said. “Everything was slowing down for me.”
That 103-yard return was the longest touchdown — of any sort — in Panthers history. When I polled a dozen Panthers at the close of the regular season to vote for the top 10 plays of Carolina’s season, they ended up voting that play No. 1.
Later in the very same game, though, Byrd hurt his knee. “A guy lunged out, his helmet straight to my knee, and then two other tacklers fell over the top,” Byrd said.
By the time Byrd was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week a couple of days later, he was already on injured reserve again.
“I know it’s very frustrating,” said Captain Munnerlyn, who also went to South Carolina and has become good friends with his fellow Gamecock. “Every time he gets the opportunity, he has a big game and goes on IR.”
Byrd would miss the rest of the 2017 season, waiting for the knee to heal.
It has healed now, and Byrd has flashed a number of times at camp.
Said head coach Ron Rivera: “I’m real excited about what Damiere has done. He’s a young man from a few years ago who really didn’t know how to do things. You watch him now and you can tell he has learned how to refine his game. He’s a pro. ... And I will say this: Every day, he’s made a play.”
To players such as Byrd, Thursday night’s opening exhibition at Buffalo is far from meaningless. Most of the roster spots at wide receiver are locked up already, with Smith, Devin Funchess, Moore, new slot receiver Jarius Wright and likely Samuel all but guaranteed spots. So Byrd is going to need to make an impact on special teams once again to make the squad.
“I know what I’m able to do,” Byrd said.
Now he has to remind everyone else.