On the day he became the Carolina Panthers’ de facto No. 1 wide receiver, Devin Funchess wore a white, floppy hat, had a wrap around his right leg and spent all of the two-hour practice on the sideline.
A hamstring injury has interrupted Funchess’ learning process until next week, when it will resume in earnest.
Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending knee injury Wednesday left Funchess as the top candidate to take over Benjamin’s spot.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said that’s a lot to put on a rookie, even though Benjamin thrived in that role last season.
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But Funchess, the second-round pick from Michigan, was already thinking big before Benjamin went down awkwardly and tore his ACL in Wednesday’s session with the Dolphins.
“It was always my expectation for it to be a big year. It just so happened that occurred yesterday,” Funchess said Thursday following the final practice of training camp. “So I guess everybody will expect more on my plate.”
While it will be difficult for Funchess to duplicate the success Benjamin had as a rookie, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Funchess is ready to handle all the Panthers have already dumped on his plate.
Shortly after the Panthers took him with the 41st overall pick, Funchess was asked to learn all three receiving positions – the X (Benjamin’s spot), the Z (which generally aligns opposite the X) and the slot.
Rivera said Funchess’ high football IQ will soften the slope of his learning curve.
“Absolutely, that should help a lot. He is really a solid young man,” Rivera said. “He knows two positions, and obviously he’ll concentrate on Kelvin’s and work to handle that spot for us.”
That said, Rivera doesn’t want Funchess to feel as though he has to carry the receiving corps. In Ted Ginn and Corey Brown, the Panthers have two wideouts who can stretch defenses with their speed, while Jerricho Cotchery, Brenton Bersin and Jarrett Boykin can work underneath coverage.
And while no one has Benjamin’s combination of size (6-foot-5, 245 pounds), strength and catch radius, the 6-4, 225-pound Funchess comes closest.
“We drafted Devin Funchess for a reason and this is one of them,” Rivera said. “You want to have a big, quality receiver, and Devin gives us that still.”
Funchess had a close-up view of Benjamin’s injury, which came during one-on-one drills. Funchess was next in line.
But instead of taking his rep, Funchess took a knee next to Benjamin and said a quick prayer. When he saw Benjamin’s left knee buckle, Funchess feared the worst.
“You hate to see a guy get hurt. That’s what happened,” Funchess said. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Funchess approached his first training camp like a sponge, soaking up any useful bit of advice offered to him, whether it came from a coach or a player. He did not discriminate in soliciting pointers from the older receivers, reasoning that each had put their own stamp on route-running.
Where did Funchess make the most progress?
“It’s my first NFL camp. Everything was progress,” he said. “Each day you learn something new from the vets and you go take it with you and get better.”
Funchess recovered from an early drop to finish with two catches for 53 yards in his exhibition debut last week at Buffalo. Both of his receptions came on passes from Derek Anderson, including a 34-yard gain on a well-timed throw.
Funchess will miss Saturday’s exhibition against Miami, but Rivera hopes to have him back Monday when the Panthers’ preseason drills shift to Charlotte.
Olsen has been impressed with Funchess, but doesn’t want Funchess’ development to be rushed.
“I think he had a good camp and he’s come a long way. He’s a good kid. He’s smart. He understands what he’s got to do,” Olsen said. “I don’t know if that’s fair to put that (No. 1 receiver label) on him. The plan for him can’t be now altered. You’ve got to keep him on the path that he’s been on and where that takes him as the season goes we’ll find out.”
Funchess was Michigan’s leading receiver with 62 catches for 733 yards and four touchdowns last season after playing tight end his first two years.
Before walking off Wofford’s practice field Thursday, he said he wouldn’t let Benjamin’s injury – or his most pronounced role – faze him.
“There’s never pressure,” Funchess said. “You come to play this game of football. You know everybody is going to get hurt at one point in time. You knew that since you were little. You’re just on a bigger stage now.”