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Rookies Ready For Bigger Roles

Posted Feb 11, 2016

Panthers' five 2015 draft picks played key roles at times during Super Bowl run but could be poised to do more in 2016.



CHARLOTTE – The disappointment of losing in the Super Bowl doesn't easily dissipate, but even after the loss, the accomplishments of the season aren't lost on the members of the Panthers' potential-packed rookie class.

"We had a good season coming in – lost just two games – but didn't win the Super Bowl," wide receiver Devin Funchess said. "We'll fight to get back there next year."

The Panthers reached the Super Bowl with a rookie class that flashed potential up and down its ranks but that for the most part wasn't asked to do too much. But linebackers Shaq Thompson and David Mayo, running back Cameron Artis-Payne offensive lineman Daryl Williams and Funchess showed they're capable of more.

"The future is definitely bright," Williams said. "Just got to get better."

Williams, the Panthers' fourth-round draft pick a year ago, missed five games early with a knee injury but played in 13 of the Panthers' other 14 games. He started two games as a sixth offensive lineman in effect working at tackle, but in the Super Bowl, when Andrew Norwell went down to a hamstring injury, coaches called on Williams to step in at left guard.

"I think I did OK," said Williams, whose versatility should assure him a role going forward. "I definitely got better over the season, but I've definitely got a lot to work on. I'll put in a lot of work in the offseason."

While Williams' growth was subtle in nature – as is often the case with offensive linemen – the growth made by the Panthers' first two draft picks was obvious.

Thompson, the Panthers' first-round choice, made impact plays throughout his rookie campaign. Starting 13 games including the playoffs – he played in four others and missed two with a knee injury, Thompson finished fifth on the team in tackles. He did some of his best work in pass coverage, highlighted by matching up and shutting down future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the NFC Championship.

"We had a great season - you can't forget that. I just wish we had ended it right, but I'm ready to get ready for next year," Thompson said. "We played big. We're just going to come back next year even stronger."

Funchess was both big and strong over the second half of his rookie season. Slowed by a hamstring injury early in the year and needing time to get up to speed, Funchess caught 24 passes for 383 yards and five touchdowns over the final nine regular season games after totaling seven catches for 90 yards over the first seven. He didn't start until Week 10 but went on to start eight of the final 10 games, including all three games in the playoffs when he added five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown.

"I've just got to get more comfortable out on the field," Funchess said. "With a year under my belt, I'll come back more confident and be ready to roll."

Mayo, the Panthers' fifth-round pick, had a hard time getting defensive snaps at the stacked linebacker position. But Mayo was active for all but three games and was always active on special teams, tying for third on the team in the regular season with 11 special teams tackles.

Artis-Payne, the Panthers' sixth-round pick, was always ready when called upon, which was a week-to-week proposition with Jonathan Stewart rolling in the backfield and veterans Mike Tolbert and Fozzy Whittaker having steady rolls. Playing in eight regular season games, Artis-Payne gained 183 yards and scored a touchdown on the ground while also catching five passes for 48 yards.

What's next for the rookies that are now rookies no more?

Stay tuned.

"It was a great season. It went by fast," Williams said. "Most rookies aren't blessed like we were to get to the Super Bowl. I'm grateful for that and thank God for that."