Carolina Panthers

Does Panthers' receiving corps have room for Devin Funchess-lite? Ex-UNC star hopes so

Former North Carolina Tar Heels star Bug Howard, who's trying to find a spot in the Carolina Panthers' receiving corps, is already familiar with Norv Turner's offense.
Former North Carolina Tar Heels star Bug Howard, who's trying to find a spot in the Carolina Panthers' receiving corps, is already familiar with Norv Turner's offense.

One glance at the Carolina Panthers' receiving corps, and it's obvious: This wasn't a group built with an emphasis on size.

Not that that's a bad thing. Plenty of the NFL's top receivers, such as the Steelers' Antonio Brown and the Rams' Brandin Cooks, compensate for a lack of overwhelming size with top-end speed, precise route running and steady hands.

And as it so happens, those are all characteristics that Panthers coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney have stressed this off-season when rebuilding the team's receiving depth chart. That explains the decision to trade for Torrey Smith (4.36 40-yard dash) from the Philadelphia Eagles, as well as the choice to pick D.J. Moore (4.42 40-yard dash) in the first round of the NFL Draft.

That speed should undoubtedly help quarterback Cam Newton on deep passes this season. But at just 6 feet tall, neither Smith nor Moore has the length to climb over defenders in the red zone. Neither do Curtis Samuel (5-foot-11), Damiere Byrd (5-foot-9) or free agent signee Jarius Wright (5-foot-10). Really, the only receiver on the team who does have that skill set is the 6-foot-4 Devin Funchess.

Which raises the question: Is there room for another Devin Funchess-type receiver on the roster?

Bug Howard certainly hopes so.

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Howard projects as a Funchess-lite if he makes the final roster. Of course, the former UNC star doesn't have the same speed or quickness that Funchess has, part of the reason he went undrafted out of North Carolina in 2017.

"I fit in with the guys more like Funch," Howard said after Tuesday's organized team activities. "There's not really another big guy. Everybody we have plays big and plays tough, but it's different with the height and actually being big."

'How're you picking this up so fast?'

With most of the team's receivers already set, Howard faces an uphill battle to make the roster. One thing working in his favor, though, is his experience in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense.

To make the Carolina Panthers roster, wide receiver Bug Howard will have to prove that his size isn't his only asset. David T. Foster III

When Howard signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2017, he joined up with former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Chud, as the coach is known, worked with Turner for years in San Diego before joining the Panthers. When he left Carolina in 2013 to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns, he hired Turner as offensive coordinator.

That meant when Howard signed with the Panthers, he already knew what he was getting into.

"Some of the young guys are still learning the playbook and still trying to get it down," Howard said. "Well, I've played a whole training camp and preseason in the offense, so that feels good.

"They'll be like, 'How're you picking this up so fast?'"

And another thing? His fast-developing relationship with Newton, who Howard said is unlike any quarterback he's played with before.

"He's right up my alley — I like him a lot," Howard said. "Some days, people just don't feel like doing anything. But it seems like every day since I've been here, he's got the juice. If it's fake juice, it's still juice. It gets contagious."

'Guys like that have chances in this league'

At North Carolina, Howard made a name for himself — other than his nickname, Bug, which his mother gave him at a young age — for tight catches and boxing out defensive backs. A great example of that was Howard's senior season against Pittsburgh, when his game-winning touchdown with two seconds left helped the Tar Heels complete a 14-point comeback win.

On that play, Howard essentially backed into the end zone and played keep-away from his defender — and it worked.

Bug Howard's game-winning touchdown with two seconds left helped North Carolina complete a 14-point comeback win in 2016 against Pittsburgh. Now he's trying to make the Carolina Panthers' roster. Robert Willett

The same won't always be possible against NFL defensive backs, but Howard's size and catch radius do give him clear advantages in tight red zone situations.

"Bug is that good-sized receiver that you do like to have part of what you do," Rivera said. "He's a big target, has a good catch radius, and he runs well. Guys like that have chances in this league.

"We need guys with a big catch radius."

The hurdles Howard will face in making Carolina's roster are twofold. First, he'll have to survive the numbers game that comes with the team's current stable of receivers. In that regard, he may not have the most control.

After all, Carolina used to have another big receiver in Kelvin Benjamin, until Hurney realized two bigs on the field together wasn't working and subsequently traded him to Buffalo last Halloween.

Otherwise, Howard will have to prove that his size isn't his only asset. Howard ran a 4.58 40-yard dash, confirming he doesn't have the speed of Carolina's other receivers. That can hurt him coming out of his breaks and when trying to gain separation, two things Howard said he is continuing to work on. And while he had only four drops in four seasons at UNC, those strong hands don't mean much if Howard can't get open.

"Taller guys are usually slower than us smaller guys — I'm joking — but it's great for him to be in the room," Samuel said of Howard. "We've got a lot of speed in the room, so with competition, you see a lot of other guys running fast. He's only going to get faster."

As OTAs continue, Howard's chances of making the 53-man roster will crystallize. For now, he's just trying to stand out — literally and figuratively — in a roomful of smaller guys.

"It's competition, but we come out, we cheer each other on," Howard said. "At the end of the day, we're making it a tough decision for the coaches with who they're gonna keep. Other than that, we just control what we can control. Attitude and effort."

Watch UNC's Mitch Trubisky's touchdown pass to Bug Howard to cap the Tar Heels' dramatic comeback win over Pitt.