Carolina Panthers wideout Devin Funchess was walking his dog Chopper during the team’s off day Tuesday when his cell phone started blowing up.
“I didn’t answer the phone because the right people wasn’t calling me,” Funchess said. “I knew nobody died up in Michigan.”
No, it was nothing that grave. But when he finally took a call from his godfather he learned what all the commotion about: The Panthers had traded No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo, leaving Funchess as the top dog in the team’s receiving corps.
The laid-back Funchess took the news nonchalantly, much as he does everything else life throws at him. The former second-round pick from Michigan would be elevated to the top receiving spot for the first time in his three-year career, but he’s not changing his approach.
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“It’s cool. I don’t get too high or low, though. You can ask anybody in the building,” Funchess said Thursday. “I’m rolling with the punches. I’m just going to keep trying to make plays for the team.”
The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder now will be in a position to be make more of them.
Funchess will move Z receiver, or flanker, to Benjamin’s old spot at the X, or split end. Though Funchess’ routes will mostly stay the same, he’ll be viewed more as the go-to receiver.
“But I don’t look at it that way. I don’t say, ‘I have to step up to the plate because he’s gone.’ I’m still going to play my game,” he said. “I’m not going to do anything different. I’m just going to play ball.”
Funchess was playing some of the best ball of his career a few weeks ago when he caught seven passes, including three for touchdowns, in back-to-back wins at New England and Detroit.
But Funchess’ numbers have dipped the past three games as he has struggled at times to separate from coverage.
The Panthers’ rationale for dealing Benjamin for two draft picks is that Benjamin and Funchess were too similar in terms of size and skill set. General manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera said they wanted to inject more speed at receiver in the persons of Curtis Samuel and Kaelin Clay.
“I mean, I’m kind of fast, too,” Funchess said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Speed is kind of a touchy subject with Funchess, who ran a slow (4.70 seconds) 40 time at the combine before clocking a 4.48 at Michigan’s pro day.
“He’s sneaky fast,” Rivera said. “He’s a build-up guy, with those long legs. Once he gets them turning over, he can go pretty good.”
Quarterback Cam Newton threw three deep balls to Funchess last week in a win at Tampa Bay, all of which fell incomplete.
Rivera said he thinks Funchess’ best routes are 12- to 15-yard digs, once known as square-ins.
“He hits that and he’s makes a pretty good cut,” Rivera said. “He sinks his hips nicely when he makes a lot of his cuts and gets in and out pretty quickly.”
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who’s on injured reserve for at least three more weeks, says Funchess alone is not going to replace Benjamin.
“I don’t think it’s going to fall on any one guy. I don’t think one guy is going to come in and just say, ‘OK, you run the routes that Kelvin runs,’” he said. “I think it’s going to be a wide receiver collective (effort).”
That was the case in 2015 when Benjamin went down with a season-ending knee injury in training camp. The Panthers had four wide receivers that season finish with at least 31 catches, but no one had more than Ted Ginn’s 44.
Funchess said learning about the Benjamin trade was a lot like watching him get hurt in Spartanburg two years ago.
“It shocked us. Just like in ’15 it shocked us. He was our guy,” Funchess said. “But we’re still going to go out there and play. You can’t cry over spilled milk. ... We can’t be, ‘Aw man, we can’t do nothing because he’s gone.’ We’ve got to step up to the plate and go out there and make plays.”
Funchess, who grew up in Detroit, talked to Benjamin this week about his new team – and preparing for lake-effect snow.
Funchess said he told the Florida-born Benjamin he was going “to a place where you might not can’t open the door” because of the snow drifts. “So I don’t know what to do with that,” Funchess added.
Rivera says he’s witnessed a more mature Funchess this season. He’s bumped into him a couple times at the stadium at 6 a.m., and seen him get on the practice field early to catch extra passes and stretch.
Funchess’ commitment might be part of the reason he’s still there. After all, if they thought they had two receivers who were too much alike, the Panthers could have tried to trade Funchess instead.
“It showed that they like me a little bit,” Funchess said. “Go out there and (prove), I was the right guy when they picked me, I guess.”