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Speed influx helps Panthers on multiple fronts


SPARTANBURG, S.C. – For a split second, Luke Kuechly actually thought he could catch Damiere Byrd.

Then Byrd split.

"The only chance I've got of catching him is if he doesn't see me," Kuechly said. "He was going like 80 percent, and then once we saw me, he just took off."

Kuechly tried to pull a fast one by sneaking up on Byrd after he hauled in a reception clear of the defense, but Kuechly isn't exactly slow. He's one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, recording the third-fastest time in the 40-yard dash among his position peers at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine.

His time of 4.58 seconds on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, however, is three-tenths of a second slower than Byrd's time on grass at South Carolina's pro day in 2015. This year at training camp, however, Byrd potentially isn't even the fastest Panther.

"There are some dudes that can roll," Kuechly said, ticking off the names of Byrd as well as new additions Curtis Samuel, Trevor Graham, Austin Duke, Kaelin Clay and Mose Frazier – all sub-4.5 guys on good days. "You watch tape, and there are just dudes flying – and tons of them. That's good for us.

"Speed creates space. It creates problems. It scares people."

After the departure in free agency of Ted Ginn, who many of his former teammates still view as the fastest guy in the league even in his 30s, the Panthers had already restocked (and then some) their straight-line speed in the receivers room even before signing Graham on the eve of training camp.

"I'm not going to shy away from it – I'm probably one of the fastest people in the NFL," said Graham, a track standout on the national level in high school who ran a 4.41 at the 2012 combine. "Speed is what I bring to the team, and that's what I've got to show."

Speed kills in the NFL – or at least it has the potential to kill. Head coach Ron Rivera was quick to say this is probably the most impressive collection of speed the Panthers have possessed since his arrival in 2011.

"We've got a pretty good track team," Rivera said, "but we're a little bit more concerned about football."

Byrd and Graham are among those who understand exactly what Rivera means. Byrd caught a modest 68 passes in 47 games at South Carolina, but his world-class speed allowed him to get his foot in the door as an undrafted free agent. He has taken advantage and has slowly crept close to being a potential factor on game day, making his regular season debut in last year's final game.

Graham caught just 99 balls in 46 games at N.C. State, but he did set the Atlantic Coast Conference record for return yards, and the Bills invested a third-round draft choice in him. He caught 54 passes his first two NFL seasons but has totaled seven catches while spending time with six different teams since 2014, including the Montreal Allouettes of the Canadian Football League.

"I'm really just trying to separate and show my talents," Graham said. "I know my major asset to the team is speed, so I need to be able to get in the playbook so I'm able to play fast.

"You don't drive fast to your house if you don't know where you're going. You need good directions. That's where I'm at right now."

The Panthers showed a penchant in the case of Ginn of taking a speedster lacking direction and steering him down a path of success. Among Carolina's new crop of burners, only Samuel – the team's second-round draft choice currently sidelined by a hamstring injury – is certain to get a similar chance when roster cuts come fast.

But it never hurts to have a lot of speed on the football field, and the Panthers have reason to hope this group will help.

"When you have a guy who can really run, you've got to take him into account," Kuechly said. "We've got a couple of guys who are just fast, and that helps everyone. It's fun that they're on our team, but it's also kind of scary when you play against them every day. They can fly."

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