The rookie receiver is making most of his opportunities in Carolina’s high-powered offense.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Throughout the NFL season the league has told you through advertisement after advertisement that “football is family.”
If that’s so, then there’s no doubt Panthers rookie receiver Devin Funchess is the little brother on the offense.
At 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, he’s a big little brother, but a little brother, nonetheless.
Funchess is the one who gets playful ribbing from quarterback Cam Newton during news conferences and inside the locker room. He’s the one everyone has watched grow from organized team activities and adjusting to the speed of the game to learning how to better play receiver in the NFL.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Sounders supporters group walks out to protest ejection of leader for displaying Iron Front flag
- Report card: Bob Condotta grades the Seahawks' Week 2 win vs. the Steelers | Analysis
- On Pete Carroll's 68th birthday, Seahawks throw massive surprise party to give him win No. 100 | Larry Stone
- Not everything is rosy, but the Seahawks are 2-0 and 'just getting warmed up' | Larry Stone
- 'He's a star': DK Metcalf hauls in first touchdown catch in Seahawks' victory at Pittsburgh
He also has the classic little-brother syndrome of not wanting to act like the little brother.
“I’ve never really understood,” Funchess said, “just like when I came in as a freshman (at Michigan), ‘Oh, you’ve got to do that because you’re a freshman.’ It doesn’t matter if I’m a rookie or a 10-year vet. I’m going to do what I want to do.”
This season, Funchess battled through a hamstring injury during training camp that stunted his growth when — after second-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season because of a knee injury — the Panthers needed him more.
He struggled with dropped passes through the first half of the season but learned to calm down, trust his hands more and better use his large frame against smaller defensive backs.
The result has been 31 catches for 473 yards, the fifth-most for a Panthers rookie receiver. And his five touchdowns are tied for second in franchise history for a first-year receiver.
“I’m just taking advantage of the opportunities that I have,” said Funchess, whose team will play host to Seattle in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs Sunday. “Go in there, do my job, hopefully it’s a good day, and if not (then) do my job in the run game. Whatever I can do to get the W. I don’t care if I have a big role or small role.”
The Panthers liked Funchess so much coming out of Michigan that they traded up in the second round to get him as other players with first-round grades flew off the NFL draft board. Funchess had raw ability, but his time at Michigan in a dysfunctional program while being moved from tight end to receiver and back meant he needed polishing.
That normally would come during training camp, but the hamstring injury delayed his development. He didn’t get the reps against NFL competition that coach Ron Rivera wanted.
So when Benjamin tore his anterior-cruciate ligament, fans and observers clamored for Funchess to replace him.
“You wish he could have had them all through training camp where he could have gotten some quality reps, especially when we had Miami in town (for joint practices), but we didn’t,” Rivera said. “Initially it was slow, and initially he was frustrated because he wanted to play more. But at that point he didn’t know enough.
“Probably Week 6-7-8 he showed us he knew enough, and you started to see the growth. The more he got on the field, the better he played. Competition makes everybody else better. You can see it.”
Over time, Funchess learned to make his in-breaking routes sharper so he could use his body to shield an undersized defender. Carolina’s X receiver position, or the No. 1 receiver, uses those kind of routes — such as slants — frequently.
When Ted Ginn Jr. is at the X, not only is he sharp but fast, which makes it tough for defenders to keep up. But if Funchess isn’t sharp on his cuts, a cornerback could undercut a route and defend a pass.
Funchess grew on the field and inside the film room. He and Ginn have buried their past as former members of rivals Michigan and Ohio State.
“He’s like my little brother,” Ginn said. “I can’t get him away from me.”
“Yeah,” Newton yelled from a locker nearby. “He ain’t lying, either.”
“We sit next to each other in meetings,” Ginn continued. “Everything we do is me and Funchess. It speaks volumes of, even though we were raised to hate each other (as college rivals), we really love each other. He’s a great guy. He’s taken this year on. It’s been fast for him, but he picked it up and he’s been doing everything we’ve asked.”