CHARLOTTE – In four seasons as Carolina's wide receivers coach, Ricky Proehl shaped the room and built tight bonds.
He personally scouted Kelvin Benjamin before the Panthers selected him in the first round of 2014 NFL Draft. Same goes for Devin Funchess, who the Panthers selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Ted Ginn, Jr. was cast off by the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals, and Proehl helped revitalize his career in Carolina. Philly Brown was an undrafted rookie that Proehl believed could be a contributor.
All of them loved playing for Coach Proehl and respected the knowledge brought by a man who played 17 seasons in the NFL.
"They are family to me," Proehl said. "It means a lot that they respect me and feel they've learned something that they can take away from the years I've been here."
Proehl proceeded to go down memory lane.
"Kelvin – that rookie year and his first touchdown in Tampa. Devin – getting thrust into a prominent role when Kelvin went down and the plays that he made. Philly – that Arizona playoff game, being an undrafted guy and seeing how he's developed. Ginn – a guy who struggled in other places but came here and found a home and has become a complete wide receiver... This has been a wonderful experience."
Someone else will be coaching the Carolina wide receivers in 2017, and Proehl will be watching closely.
He knows the spotlight will shine bright on Benjamin and Funchess, the "twin towers" who didn't have the kind of production many anticipated in 2016.
"They're the future of this franchise, and they need to push each other to become the best players they can be," Proehl said. "They both have huge upside. They are both so talented. This was a great learning experience, because they did struggle. We had a tough year, and as young kids, you have to learn and teach yourself how to be a pro. This is your job, and it's not always going to be easy. But this is what builds character and leadership.
"For all the struggles that Kelvin and Devin had, they are going to be better football players for it. I truly believe that."
Like he has with former Panthers Steve Smith, Sr. and Brandon LaFell, Proehl plans to stay in touch with the players he coached over the last few years.
He won't be there on the sideline waiting as they come off the field, but the Panthers wideouts can count on Proehl to be among their biggest supporters.
"I'm going to be sitting in my PSLs in section 134," Proehl said with a smile. "This organization has been wonderful to me. At the end of the day, I'm still a huge fan."