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-foot-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 in news conferences and in 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 the receiver position in the NFL.
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 in training camp that stunted his growth when—after second-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season with 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 plays host to Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday. “Go in there, do my job, hopefully it’s a good day and if not 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’d normally come during a month in Spartanburg for training camp, but the hamstring injury delayed his development. He didn’t get the reps against NFL competition that Panthers coach Ron Rivera wanted.
So when Benjamin tore his ACL, fans and observers clamored for Funchess to replace him. He’s big and tall, too, so why can’t he just be inserted to the spot?
“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—like 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 in 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.”
“Hell 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.”
There’s no better evidence that things are clicking for Funchess in his rookie season than Carolina’s last game of the regular season, against NFC South rival Tampa Bay.
On third-and-11 from the Tampa 16, Funchess was supposed to run a route that calls for going seven steps and breaking inside.
But Funchess recognized Tampa was sending a blitz. The Bucs sent seven defenders and there was no way Newton would have enough time to wait on the route to develop. The safety had left his zone to rush after the quarterback, so Funchess took steps and broke in sharply while using his body to shield the smaller cornerback.
Newton hit Funchess in stride at the 7, then the rookie shrugged off the defender and dove for the end zone as a second Buccaneers defender came for him.
“Those are things that you’re starting to see from him on a more consistent basis,” Rivera said. “Going into the playoffs, a young guy like that making plays, could be one of those guys—I don’t want to say X factor—but someone no one really accounts for because he’s still a rookie and still learning and developing, but makes the kind of plays that help bolster you.”