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Panthers counting on WR 'misfits' to carry them into playoffs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It seemed like such a simple question for Carolina Panthers tight end Ed Dickson. All he had to do was name the top five wide receivers on the current roster.

Piece of cake, right?

Not quite.

"Brenton Bersin," Dickson began. "We have Mose [Frazier] in now. Mike Clay. Not Mike Clay. I'm going to throw myself into that group."

Bong!

The correct answer is Bersin, Frazier, Kaelin Clay, Devin Funchess and Russell Shepard.

Dickson actually knows his teammates. But if he struggled to come up with the right names when put on the spot, imagine how many people around the country could spit out this group that Shepard nicknamed the "Misfits," among a few other things.

"Probably nobody," Dickson said. "At the beginning of the season if we told you guys our starting receivers would be this list of names, you guys would probably laugh at us."

That's what Panthers coach Ron Rivera did when asked what his reaction would have been had somebody told him in training camp that this would be his wide receivers group heading into the playoffs.

"That's how I'd react," Rivera said, still smiling.

The unit was considered a strength heading into the season. No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin was more than a year removed from a knee injury that ended his 2015 season and looking good. Funchess was ready to emerge opposite him.

Then there was second-round pick Curtis Samuel, a fast, dynamic player out of Ohio State. Damiere Byrd also appeared ready to emerge as a deep threat, and Shepard was signed in free agency to be a solid option in the slot.

But halfway into the season, Benjamin was traded to Buffalo. A few weeks later, Samuel suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Byrd spent eight weeks on injured reserve after suffering a broken forearm in Week 4, then was lost for the season with a lower-leg injury returning a kick in Sunday's 22-19, playoff-clinching victory over Tampa Bay.

That left Funchess and a bunch of "No-names," another of the monikers Shepard uses to describe the current group.

"The Runts, the Misfits, the Rugrats, anything that describes the underdog or the guy that people tend to overlook," Shepard said. "That's what we embody. That's who we are as a group."

After Funchess, the other four wide receivers have a combined 27 catches for 336 yards and one touchdown. Take Shepard out of the mix and the three remaining receivers have 10 catches for 134 yards and no touchdowns.

Bersin wasn't on the opening-day roster. He has been cut five times by the Panthers since signing as an unrestricted free agent out of Wofford in 2012. He was most recently re-signed on Nov. 1 after Benjamin was traded.

Kaelin Clay, a sixth-round pick of the Buccaneers in 2015, spent time with Tampa, Detroit and Baltimore before the Panthers signed him to a one-year deal in April. He was traded to Buffalo before the season in exchange for cornerback Kevon Seymour, then claimed off waivers after being released by the Bills.

Frazier spent time on the practice squads at Denver, Buffalo and San Francisco after going undrafted out of Memphis in 2016, before joining Carolina's practice squad following training camp this season. He was signed to the active roster last week, when Shepard was out with a shoulder injury.

Shepard was primarily a special-teams star with Tampa Bay from 2013 to 2015, before emerging as a wide receiver with 23 catches in 2016.

Funchess, a second-round pick out of Michigan in 2015, is the only player most around the country would know.

"We definitely are misfits," Clay said. "A lot of us were looked down upon or nobody really wanted us. We love it. We love the role we play on this team. We like being the underdog."

The Panthers believe this group of misfits fits into what quarterback Cam Newton and the offense want to become. While there aren't any superstars, there's a solid mix of big players in Funchess (6-foot-4) and Bersin (6-foot-3) and small, fast players in Clay (5-foot-10), Frazier (5-foot-11) and Shepard (6-foot-1).

And remember, the cupboard of players that can catch isn't completely empty. First-round pick Christian McCaffrey, a running back/receiver out of Stanford, has a team-best 75 catches for 611 yards and five touchdowns.

Greg Olsen, who in 2016 became the first tight end in NFL history to have three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, has finally recovered fully from a broken foot.

"When Cam is at his best and our offense is at its best is when the ball is getting spread around," Bersin said. "It doesn't matter who it's going to."

Still, this isn't a group that strikes fear into the hearts of defenses. The 11-4 Panthers are the only NFL team this season to have only one wide receiver with at least 250 yards (that's Funchess).

To put this in greater perspective, six individual wide receivers on other squads have more catches than the 88 combined receptions of Carolina's five current wideouts, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Also, seven individual WRs on other teams have more receiving yards than the Carolina group's 1,128, including Julio Jones (1,364) of the Falcons, whom the Panthers will visit for Sunday's regular-season finale. And four other individual WRs have more touchdowns than the Carolina unit's combined eight scoring catches.

The Carolina wide receivers rank 27th in the league in receptions and receiving yards, which includes the catches and receptions of Benjamin and Byrd.

But what this group has is camaraderie and a sense of pride. Shepard wore Byrd's No. 18 jersey to practice on Wednesday to show his respect for his injured teammate.

"Everybody loves an underdog," Shepard said. "Life is about overcoming the struggles. I don't care if you're the richest man, the most talented man, everybody has things they have to overcome. Those that overcome them the best those are the ones you remember."

This isn't the first time Carolina receivers have been called "No-names." During the run to Super Bowl 50 in 2015, then-wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl used the term to describe Jerricho Cotchery, Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown and Funchess.

But even that 2015 group on paper looked better than the current group.

This also isn't the first time the "No-names" nickname has been used by the Panthers; the 2015 secondary referred to itself as such after ESPN analyst Jon Gruden labeled it the "Legion of Whom," a play on Seattle's "Legion of Boom."

Those two previous groups helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl.

"This is nothing new to me," said Newton, who was the league MVP in 2015, after tossing a career-best 35 touchdown passes. "A lot of hungry guys in that locker room ready to prove themselves. Proving to the outside is irrelevant."

In other words, Newton believes this group of "No-names" can help the Panthers reach the title game again. So does Dickson, even if he did struggle with a few names.

"They're helping us win games," he said. "That's all that matters."