After the Carolina Panthers traded Kelvin Benjamin last October, Devin Funchess became the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, a role in which he immediately flourished. Over the ensuing five games, Funchess caught 24 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns.
Although Funchess struggled in the final three games of the regular season, he did so while dealing with a shoulder injury. But he still ended the season with career highs in targets (113), receptions (63), receiving yards (840) and TDs (8).
The question is, how will Funchess perform in his first full season as the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver? Will he take a step back or will he continue to improve in his fourth NFL season?
One might assume that with all of the new players the Panthers have, Funchess’ productivity would decrease. After all, Carolina drafted speedy receiver D.J. Moore with the 24th overall pick during April’s NFL draft and there’s a chance he could eventually become their top pass catcher.
The Panthers also signed a pair of experienced wideouts in free agency, bringing in 29-year-old Torrey Smith and 28-year-old Jarius Wright. Both are known for their above-average speed, so they have a chance to make a major impact on the offense as well.
Not to mention Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd, the two young receivers who finished last year on injured reserve. Also back for the Panthers are veteran tight end Greg Olsen, rookie tight end Ian Thomas and second-year running back Christian McCaffrey. The latter led the squad with 80 receptions as a rookie.
Obviously, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has a plethora of options to throw the ball to. However, Funchess is still the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart. Therefore, he will likely be among the team’s most targeted pass catchers once again.
But what does that translate to in terms of receptions, yards and TDs?
In my opinion, Funchess has a great chance to collect his first 1,000-yard receiving season in 2018. After the tremendous jump he made from 2016 to 2017, I definitely don’t expect him to regress.
I also expect Funchess to catch 70-75 passes and score at least eight TDs again. Given his size as compared to the rest of the Panthers’ receivers, he should continue to receive a lot of red-zone targets. Some of his teammates may be more explosive, but Funchess’ 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame makes him more dangerous in goal-line situations.
In addition, Funchess may have recently gained a little extra motivation to prove that his connection with Newton is a force to be reckoned with. Just take a look at the comments former teammate Benjamin made to The Athletic on Saturday:
“I mean, I felt like I would’ve been even more successful if … I don’t know, man … If I would’ve … Looking back on it, I should’ve just been drafted by somebody else. I should’ve never went to Carolina. Truly, I just think Carolina was bad for me. It was a bad fit from the get-go.”
“If you would’ve put me with any other quarterback, let’s be real, you know what I’m saying? Any other accurate quarterback like (Aaron) Rodgers or Eli Manning or Big Ben (Roethlisberger) — anybody! — quarterbacks with knowledge, that know how to place a ball and give you a better chance to catch the ball. It just felt like I wasn’t in that position.”
On the surface, those comments may seem to have absolutely nothing to do with Funchess. And they’re not directly about him. But when someone makes disparaging remarks about one of your teammates, particularly your quarterback, it has to fire you up.
You can bet Funchess doesn’t want to go down as a failed No. 1 option. He had his doubters when he took over as the Panthers’ primary receiver, but prior to his shoulder injury, he was absolutely balling out.
Barring injury — and Funchess doesn’t have a history of missing games due to injury, unlike the aforementioned Benjamin — look for him to keep it up in 2018. He’s in tremendous shape and he’s a big target who still has plenty to prove.
In 2018, Funchess’ ascent will continue. He may not put up Julio Jones or Antonio Brown type numbers, but he will be a steady contributor for an offense that has boatloads of potential.