The Carolina Panthers have only had four training-camp practices, but one thing is already crystal clear: Devin Funchess can play.
Funchess, the team’s second-round rookie draft pick out of Michigan, looks to me like he will be the opening-day starter at wide receiver alongside Kelvin Benjamin. Funchess isn’t as good as Benjamin at the moment, but his build and playing style are very similar. On third-and-8, you put those two together with either Ted Ginn Jr. or Philly Brown streaking deep and tight end Greg Olsen working the middle and you’ve got something.
I keep thinking back to last year’s training camp, when Benjamin and Cam Newton bonded like brothers. They both knew how much each could help the other. And four months later, Benjamin had a 1,000-yard receiving season.
Newton has taken a similar interest in Funchess, seeking him out during practices and offering advice when the route could have been tweaked a little or praise when Funchess has come down with another catch over the middle.
Funchess is 6-4 and about 230 pounds at the moment, which makes him an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Benjamin. Said Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman right after drafting Funchess: “You can’t coach that size. ... He’s a match-up issue.”
Not that Funchess has been perfect in camp. He went up for a jump ball against two defensive backs Monday. He got his hand on the football, failed to corral it under heavy pressure, and saw the tipped ball intercepted. But more often than not, he uses his body to box out the defender and makes the catch.
His speed is questionable enough that he played tight end at Michigan for two years before switching to wide receiver. But he looks fluid to me coming out of breaks, and while he is never going to possess Ginn-like speed, he sure doesn’t look like a tight end. He looks like a big receiver (although I still don’t like him wearing No. 17 – I will always associate that number with Jake Delhomme).
Benjamin has been trying to help the teammate who stands where he did a year ago. “He’s making sure I know all of my stuff and know where I’m supposed to be at,” Funchess said. Newton is obviously trying to speed that process along, too.
Even after Stephen Hill’s season-ending injury, the Panthers have a crowded house at wide receiver. But the Panthers have been high on Funchess since they traded three draft picks (a second, third and a sixth) to move up 16 spots and draft him with the No. 41 overall pick in May.
“He was a guy we had rated in the first round,” coach Ron Rivera said then. “He was a guy that’s going to bring something different to the table in terms of big catch radius, big size, a little bit more speed.”
With a tendency for high throws, Newton will enjoy having two wide receivers in the rotation who are 6-4 or taller. Funchess hasn’t proven anything yet, of course, as he has yet to play in an NFL game of any type. But I believe he is about to have a superb rookie season.