In the spring of 2015 the Carolina Panthers traded three draft picks to St. Louis to move up 16 spots in the second round and select a spindly wide receiver from Michigan.
After a solid start to his NFL career as a rookie, Devin Funchess is ready to reward the Panthers for their investment.
“I just know I need to be one of those guys,” Funchess told the Observer after Wednesday’s minicamp practice. “They spent three draft picks on me, so I’m just going to prove everybody right upstairs and all the fans that I am worth those three picks.”
While Kelvin Benjamin continues his comeback from knee surgery, Funchess has emerged as one of the Panthers’ breakthrough stars during organized team activities and minicamp.
If the Panthers were to name an MVP for OTAs, Funchess would have to be the favorite. Panthers coach Ron Rivera last week said Funchess was “light years ahead” of where he was at this point last year. And while Funchess was pleased to hear Rivera’s comments, he’s not ready to celebrate during the NFL’s equivalent of spring practice.
“I don’t look into it. I just don’t like seeing all the media and the hype, just because people have biased opinions,” Funchess said. “(Rivera) said it. That’s how he felt. I appreciate the comments that he made. It just makes me work harder.”
Funchess returned after sitting out Tuesday’s practice with a sickness, and did not miss a beat.
Funchess turned in one of the prettiest plays of the day when he used a double move to get behind rookie cornerback Daryl Worley and haul in a long touchdown pass from Cam Newton.
After battling inconsistency in his pass-catching early as a rookie, Funchess has shown improved confidence in his hands during his second year in the league.
“He’s playing faster. But it’s more so him attacking the football,” receivers coach Ricky Proehl said. “Just being aggressive like, ‘This is my ball.’ Just aggressively being physical, running through the football instead of waiting for it.”
Solid, not spectacular
Funchess, 6-4 and 225 pounds, caught 31 passes for 473 yards and five touchdowns in 2015. While those were solid numbers, they were about half of what Benjamin put up in 2014 when he obliterated the Panthers’ rookie receiving records. Rivera thought Benjamin’s injury hurt Funchess’ development because he couldn’t learn by watching how the similarly built Benjamin (6-5, 245) ran certain routes and used his body to create space against smaller defensive backs.
But Rivera has noticed a change in Funchess this year, beginning with the way he carries himself.
“He walks on the field and he’s got a lot of confidence. He’s running good routes, he’s making good catches,” Rivera said. “So probably the biggest thing is really his confidence. Because I think he knows what he needs to do and he’s doing those things.”
Funchess’ production picked up the second half of his rookie season, culminating with a Week 17 performance against Tampa Bay in which he caught seven passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Funchess had two catches for 40 yards in the Super Bowl 50 loss to Denver.
“I just needed reps and (to) get experience,” said Funchess, who believes the fact the Panthers played 19 games last season also helped him grow as a receiver.
“That’s expected because we played a long season,” he said. “I do know the playbook. So that’s expected to come in more knowledgeable and play faster.”
With Benjamin expected to be back for training camp next month, Newton will take aim at the tall receiving tandem the Panthers envisioned when they gave up those draft picks to grab Funchess last year.
‘On a mission’
Proehl says Funchess is “on a mission” to be a better receiver than he was 2015, and having Benjamin alongside him will only help.
“If Devin can get to where he’s as physical as Kelvin, it’s going to make him a better football player,” Proehl said. “He’s still learning and understanding different coverages, how to use his body to screen guys off. That’s where Kelvin to me from Day 1 made him exceptional.”
Funchess seems on the verge of becoming one of the Panthers’ marquee players. On Wednesday he was shadowed by Trey Rice, a 12-year-old from Troutman with Hodgkin’s lymphoma who attended practice through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Funchess enjoyed his time with Trey, who wore a jersey with Funchess’ No. 17. But Funchess didn’t want to be pulled into any talk about his prospects for future success.
“I’m not going to predict none of that,” Funchess said. “I’m just trying to make plays for the team and make sure we get the W at the end of the day.”