CHARLOTTE – Devin Funchess wants to play football for as long as his body will allow, and he's got an amazing role model in his family that can help show him the way.
"I've had a lot of talks with my cousin, and he says, 'Just be the same guy, take everything in and play as long as you can,'" Funchess said. "I've kind of got the same mentality as him."
Wait, who is this cousin of which you speak?
The two grew up in the Detroit area ("He's been talking trash since I was little," Funchess said), but they are almost a generation apart in age. Gates, 15 seasons into a Hall of Fame career with the Chargers, is currently a free agent but could still be in San Diego's plans with Hunter Henry ruled out for the 2018 season with a knee injury. While Gates will turn 38 in a month, Funchess turned 24 just last week.
Just four of the other 11 receivers on the Panthers' roster are younger than Funchess, even though he's entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract. Seven Carolina receivers are entering their first, second or third year in the league, and just two aside from Funchess have recorded regular season receptions as Panthers – Damiere Byrd and Curtis Samuel.
So Funchess, to say the least, is experienced for his age. And that's really starting to show.
"Yes, you see it," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That's a big part of his development – getting the opportunity to be the guy in the room.
"I think it's been really good. He is embracing it."
Funchess, much like Gates, is mostly choosing to lead by example.
"If I need to say something, I think everybody will listen because I don't say too much."
Funchess led by example down the stretch last season in a way that won't soon be forgotten.
He became the de facto leader midway through the season when the Panthers traded Kelvin Benjamin – a year more experienced and three-plus years older – to the Bills. Funchess thrived the first four games as Carolina's No. 1 receiver, averaging 86.5 yards per game and scoring three times.
He averaged just 34.3 yards per game over the final four games, but he did score twice and certainly scored with teammates just by being out there. Funchess was severely hampered by a shoulder injury down the stretch, though he refused to put it that way.
"Whether I was hurt or not, I still tried to do my best every week, give 100 percent out there," Funchess said. "Every year I play hurt. It was just different adjusting to that. It was hard moving my shoulder around in certain area – coming off releases and things of that nature – but I went through that adversity so that if it happens again I'll be able to shoulder it.
"Right now I'm just getting back into the groove of things and making sure my body stays in tip-top shape."
To that end, Funchess spent the months leading up to the Panthers' offseason workout program healing in Miami, often working out on the beach. Now starting the seventh week of the team's nine-week workout program, Funchess and his teammates have moved beyond drawing up plays in the sand.
First-year but longtime offensive coordinator Norv Turner is bringing changes to the offense, and while the locker room now features two older receivers – Torrey Smith and former Turner receiver Jarius Wright - Funchess is a leading agent for the change.
"I make sure every day in the meeting room and out here that we hold ourselves to a certain standard," Funchess said. "We're all out here just trying to get better and better each day. Everything isn't going to be perfect right now, but in camp, that's when everyone turns it up a notch.
"Everything right now is looking smooth, though. We're just trying to learn the playbook, get it in and make sure we come out here and compete against the defense."
It might sound like Funchess is all business, another trait associated with his older cousin, but there's still plenty of "Fun" in "Fun"chess as well. Funchess said both he and quarterback Cam Newton are excited to get going under the tutelage of Turner, who was offensive coordinator with the Chargers during a significant portion of Gates' heyday.
"In this offense, everybody scores. Go check his tapes all the way back to San Diego, all the way back to the Cowboys. We're just going to have fun with it," Funchess said. "That's what I like to do, and that's what '1' likes to do. These guys have to catch up to our energy and our fun, and we're just going to out there and have fun."
View photos from the fourth practice of organized team activities.