CHARLOTTE – For Panthers like wide receiver Damiere Byrd and safety Travell Dixon, the final game of the 2016 season was really just the beginning.
Both Byrd and Dixon played their first career games in the NFL when the Panthers visited Tampa Bay in Week 17.
For the first 16 weeks of the regular season, Dixon was strictly a member of the practice squad, and Byrd, who made the original 53-man roster, joined Dixon on the practice squad five weeks into the season. It was a demotion that was difficult to take after Byrd had spent the entire 2015 season on the practice squad.
Their consistent work and training was rewarded. With knee injuries forcing safety Tre Boston and wide receiver Devin Funchess to injured reserve before the finale at Tampa Bay, both were promoted to the active roster.
By this time, the Panthers were already eliminated from the playoffs. Nothing that happened against the Buccaneers could alter that outcome. But for Byrd and Dixon, Week 17 provided an early chance to audition for a job in Carolina in 2017.
Byrd especially took advantage of his opportunity. Although only targeted one time by quarterback Cam Newton, he was able to make his first career catch for a 16-yard gain over the middle. Byrd also returned one kickoff for 31 yards.
"I think it gives me that assurance that I can go out there and play," Byrd said. "It's a little bit different when you're just playing preseason games and working through training camp. The games on Sunday are a little bit different. Being able to be out there allows me to walk into this offseason knowing that I can do it and that I gave everybody the opportunity to see that I can do it."
Even though Dixon made only one special teams tackle, he knows that being rewarded for his work at practice is only his first step.
"It was a great experience, just finally being able to be out there with my brothers," Dixon said. "It's always been a childhood dream growing up, and just to see it come into fruition for me was just an amazing experience. I took everything as it came. The start of the new year couldn't have started off any better."
The former undrafted rookie free agents took their activation not only as a compliment, but also as an impetus to improve ahead of offseason workouts. Both are under contract for next season.
"Once I hit it (offseason training) full-fledged, it's about understanding more concepts as a safety and understating the position, the art of playing the position and being the best I can be," Dixon said.
View the top photos from Panthers vs. Buccaneers by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.