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Injuries Expected to Force Changes to Carolina Panthers' Kick Returners in Week 17

The Carolina Panthers are dealing with a rash of injuries heading into their Week 17 showdown with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The hardest hit group though will most likely be special teams as the Panthers are expected to have new kick and punt returners on Sunday.

The Carolina Panthers' special team unit is expected to have a much different look in Week 17 as Fozzy Whittaker, the team's primary kick returner, has been ruled out. The Panthers have also listed wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who has been the primary punt returner, as doubtful which means he only has a 25% chance of playing. Bryan Strickland of tweeted who is most likely to replace Whittaker and Ginn on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Kickoff returns may not be a huge concern for this team because while Whittaker does lead the team in kickoff returns and yards, with nine for 203 yards, Joe Webb has had his fair share with six on the year for 127 return yards. However, the same can't be said for punt returns as Ginn has returned 26 punts this year and ranks fourth in the NFL with a 10.3 yards per return average for players with 25 or more punt returns. The team has had only one other player return a punt this year, which was Dean Marlowe.

This is a major difference from a season ago when the team tried Philly Brown and Brenton Bersin at the position, who finished with a combined yards per return of only eight yards. Football Outsider gave the Panthers' punt return a rating of -4.4 last year and that number has improved to 2.7 through Week 16 of this year with Ginn returning kicks.

This is why the team may give Robert McClain the first opportunity to replace Ginn. McClain signed with the Panthers earlier this month and does have experience returning punts but has not done so since 2013.

While with the Atlanta Falcons, he returned 19 punts and averaged 10.2 yards per return with three returns going longer than 20 yards. He probably provides the Panthers with the best option in replacing Ginn but there may be some rust there since he has not done it for almost two years.

Twitter @BrandonCroce.

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