CHARLOTTE – This past offseason, Ron Rivera lamented multiple times about a lack of targets for Devin Funchess in 2016. A year later, the Panthers are making up for those missed opportunities.
In Sunday’s victory over the Jets, Funchess was targeted a career-high 12 times. Those looks accounted for 43 percent of Cam Newton’s targets while Funchess’ seven receptions made up 64 percent of Newton’s 11 completions. Afterward, the quarterback singled out his new No. 1 wideout – but the praise had nothing to do with the 6-foot-5 wideout’s physical tools.
“He’s a very intellectual player and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that,” Newton said. “He’s a person who understands what is going on. His intellect throughout the game and communicating that is something that is a valuable asset for us – knowing how guys are playing him. He’s just growing, too.”
But Funchess’ combination of play-making ability and football savvy helped convince the Panthers to surprisingly send former top wideout Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo last month.
It’s a small sample size, but in his three games since the Benjamin deal, Funchess has caught 17 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns. That breaks down to 5.7 receptions and 95.3 yards per game. Before the trade, Funchess was averaging 4.1 catches and 44.6 yards per game.
“Remember, he played a lot as a rookie, and he's gotten better and better each year he's been here,” Rivera said. “And because of his growth, it was part of the reason we were able to do what we did a few weeks ago when we made the trade.
“He understands route progressions; he understands reading defenses. He gets it.”
Which is what Newton wanted to point out Sunday.
“He kept giving me keys of the leverage that the defenders were playing him with,” Newton said.
For example, how was cornerback Darryl Roberts covering Funchess?
“He kind of was playing in-between,” Funchess said, “so he was trying to sit on my routes, sometimes trying to jump them.”
That’s why Funchess looked back on this route midway through the third quarter on a play that picked up 35 yards on third-and-10:
“He was calling for just a straight go ball, so that was one of his play calls, Newton said.”
But Funchess’ day wasn’t without mistakes.
On the very next play, he and Newton again went at Roberts, but Funchess didn’t finish:
“I've got just to learn how to catch with my body,” Funchess said.
“That catch right there you're supposed to catch with your body. I just don't know how to catch with my body. I'm a hands catcher.”
There was also this chance at the end of the Panthers’ opening drive:
“I think Devin's going to have to get used to some of the things that Cam did with Kelvin - a couple of those jump balls that he threw up,” Rivera said. “Devin was real close to making a couple of great plays, and that really hadn't been something he had done with Devin. So I think it's something they'll work together and improve on.”
But Funchess has so far rewarded the Panthers’ faith in him since the Benjamin trade. And by the way, he played most of Sunday’s game in pain after jamming his toe on his first reception.
“The turf was just bad. It was funky,” Funchess said. “It was the same one that I broke in college, so I'm just going to keep getting treatment and I'll be alright.”
That’s welcome news for the Panthers because if Funchess can keep improving, he has a chance to be the consistent No. 1 wideout Carolina had hoped Benjamin would become.