Cam Newton called him the night the Carolina Panthers drafted Devin Funchess, just as he called Kelvin Benjamin when he was picked a year earlier.
Here was Newton’s message to his receivers.
“We’ve got something that only God can give us, and that’s the three Ss: Size, speed and strength,” Newton said last month in Tennessee. “A lot of guys have speed but don’t have size. A lot of guys have strength, you know. To have that blessing to have all three, you have a responsibility to yourself to maximize that.”
The point of the talk was to not take what they have for granted. At 6-foot-5 and more than 260 pounds, Newton is one of the most physically imposing quarterbacks the league has ever seen.
At 6-5 and 6-4, respectively, Benjamin, from Florida State, and Funchess, a Michigan man, are among the tallest receivers in the league.
The average NFL cornerback is shorter than 6 feet, so in any given matchup on any given Sunday, both will likely tower over their defender.
This presents obvious advantages. As NFL rules have given offensive players more freedoms, tall receivers such as Benjamin and Funchess have enjoyed great success.
Was this general manager Dave Gettleman’s plan all along? Has this been a two-year-long ploy to have one of the tallest duos in the league for Newton to throw to?
To figure out how the Panthers ended up with 12 feet and 9 inches of receivers, you have to go back to 2014.
Gettleman had done away with Steve Smith in unceremonious fashion and was left with Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt as his top two receivers before the draft. He needed someone reliable – preferably a veteran – so he sought out and signed Jerricho Cotchery to a two-year deal.
Once the hole was filled, Gettleman focused on the NFL draft, which was rich with receiver talent. He eyed five big-time talents, and he saw Benjamin as the second-best behind New York’s Odell Beckham Jr. – the third receiver taken in the draft at No. 12.
Benjamin had the biggest season by a rookie receiver in team history by catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns, but Gettleman was still worried.
“Now I’m saying what makes me anxious? Where can we potentially be in a bind?” Gettleman told the Observer. “And it was two places: (Thomas Davis) gets hurt and Kelvin gets hurt.”
So with the first-round pick, the Panthers took college safety Shaq Thompson and made him an outside linebacker like Davis. The next night, Gettleman traded his third- and sixth-round picks to the Rams to move up 12 spots and secure Funchess out of Michigan.
“Did I want another big guy? Sure,” Gettleman said. “I say all the time it’s a big man’s game.
“You’d like to tell everybody you’re a brain surgeon and that I had that plan. It worked out. I’m being honest.”
NFL’s best receivers?
For all the talk about these two guys, Thursday night’s season opener in Denver against the Broncos will be the first time they’ve ever shared the field during a regular-season game.
They were hardly on the field together during Funchess’ rookie year last season. Funchess battled hamstring issues throughout camp that bled into the season, and Benjamin tore his ACL on the penultimate day of training camp.
“We went from looking like a basketball team to a soccer team,” coach Ron Rivera said. “A lot of people were concerned about it and rightfully so.”
What people forgot about, Rivera said, was tight end Greg Olsen and running back Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers were able to run the ball effectively, and Olsen started with two 130-plus-yard efforts in the first five games of the season.
That bought Funchess enough time to recover from his hamstring issues and learn the offense more. In his first seven games, Funchess had 90 receiving yards. He had 383 yards in his final nine games.
At the beginning of camp, Funchess said the team had the best receiving corps in the NFL.
“Y’all aren’t going to say it,” Funchess said. “I’m not trying to be arrogant but y’all aren’t gonna say it. It’s about being confident. If we don’t go out and say that we have the top offense or top receiving corps, nobody else will give us the credit.”
If they’re going to be the best, though, Benjamin has to catch up. Funchess is coming off a preseason in which he was clearly the offensive MVP. Benjamin struggled to stay on the field.
Coming off that knee injury, Benjamin labored through the first part of training camp. He gradually got his conditioning up, and the Panthers are eyeing around 35 snaps for him against Denver.
Benjamin got 34 snaps against the Patriots during the third exhibition, but he and Newton were way off on their rhythm. The first two passes to Benjamin were high and wide, the third was called back because of offensive pass interference, and the fourth was intercepted on a bad throw.
“I think we’ve got to get back in the lab. Just go back to work,” Benjamin said after the exhibition. “Just a lot of mistakes and plays that we left out on the field that we usually make that we need to make.”
What could be ...
If it all comes together, this is what could happen for Carolina.
With two tall receivers, the Panthers will force most teams to change their defense. A defense’s tall corner will likely be on Benjamin, who can still use his 245-pound body to shield the defender. A defense’s faster corner will likely go to Funchess, who has better linear speed than Benjamin but will likely be much taller than the man covering him.
That would allow the Panthers to put a speedster on the field as the third receiver, such as Ted Ginn Jr. or Philly Brown. A linebacker can’t cover either of those two, so the defense likely will bring in another cornerback and go to its nickel package.
That’s a big, dangerous group to play nickel against.
Or the Panthers can come out in their 12 personnel package – one running back (Stewart) and two tight ends – (Olsen and Ed Dickson). With Benjamin and Funchess out wide against the opponent’s cornerbacks, safety help would be shaded to one side.
That leaves the other safety covering Olsen, and the Panthers have more blockers inside than the opponent has defenders. So what do the Panthers do?
They run the ball.