CHARLOTTE – When Greg Olsen broke his foot in Week 2, the natural reaction was to wonder how the Panthers would replace his production at tight end. Two games later, no one has seen a bigger increase in opportunities than wide receiver Devin Funchess.
Before Olsen was lost for at least two months, Funchess' career high in targets was eight. In the past two weeks, he's seen a total of 19.
Funchess and quarterback Cam Newton connected on just four of 10 chances in the loss to New Orleans, but in New England, Funchess caught seven of his nine targets.
"This is part of the reason we went out and drafted him," said head coach Ron Rivera shortly after that upset over the Patriots.
It's not fair to say Sunday was the first time Funchess looked like a second-round draft pick, but it's fair to say it was his best game since the Panthers traded up to take him in 2015.
When Funchess first came to Carolina, coaches immediately began trying to get him to optimize his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame. He'll likely never be as imposing as fellow wideout Kelvin Benjamin, but Funchess does have a distinct physical advantage.
His first catch, a simple slant against 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback Malcolm Butler, showed exactly that:
The Patriots came in with the league's 32nd-ranked pass defense and that secondary was again a mess on Sunday.
Funchess' first touchdown was mostly the result of a defensive breakdown, but he did a good job breaking off his route and letting Newton know someone forgot to cover No. 17:
You could argue Funchess' biggest play wasn't a reception.
If he didn't turn into a defender here, a Butler interception would have given the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady the ball with nearly two minutes and all three timeouts left:
"(Funchess has) a real good football sense," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Monday. "He's always had that awareness, and now he's starting to get the experience to add to that, and I think that's helping him."
It's easy to forget how green Funchess was when he turned pro. He began his college career as a tight end, and after playing only one season at Michigan as a wideout, he was just 20 on draft day. So his routes were always going to need a good bit of seasoning. Three years into his career, the progress is showing.
Check out how crisp he runs this post for his second touchdown, plus notice how he shows strong hands while crossing Butler's face:
And now, a flashback.
I want to take you back to a play from last season's opening loss in Denver. With the Panthers trailing 21-17 midway through the fourth quarter, Newton looks for Funchess on third-and-5, but the route gives cornerback Aqib Talib just enough time to knock the ball away:
Fast forward to Sunday with the Panthers and Funchess in the same formation as the play above:
Notice how much cleaner Funchess ran that route and his acceleration out of the cut? That, plus a broken tackle, converted a third-and-8 on a drive that ended with his first touchdown.
But the Panthers weren't done with that formation and route. They came back to it in the biggest spot of the game, with the Panthers facing a third-and-3 with 65 seconds left:
"The play that Devin made really spoke to how tough he is," Rivera said, "how physical he is to lower his shoulder and ran over a defender to pick up the first down. That's a big deal. That really did catapult us to win the game."
And with Olsen set to miss at least six more games, Funchess will get more opportunities to shine as he did on Sunday.