In the wake of Kelvin Benjamin's season-ending knee injury, the Carolina Panthers are right back where they were one year ago; hoping a young receiver can step to the forefront of a group which is mostly devoid of playmakers.
Last year, Benjamin, who Carolina selected 28th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, emerged to lead the team in receiving, shattering all of their rookie records for receptions, yards, and touchdowns along the way. Following the offseason departures of Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, the Panthers were greatly in need of an outside weapon for Cam Newton to lean on, and the rookie responded in a big way. Now, the spotlight turns to a rookie receiver from the 2015 draft class: Carolina's second-round pick, Devin Funchess.
Funchess, like Benjamin a season ago, has a chance to jump right in to the thick of things as Carolina hopes to build on back-to-back NFC South titles and playoff appearances. The team had originally planned to pair them with an eye on developing a tandem that could produce at a similar level to that of Smith and Muhsin Muhammad from yesteryear. Under normal circumstances, Funchess would occupy the "Z" position and Benjamin the "X" within Mike Shula's offense, and they certainly still have many years ahead of themselves to fulfill those hopes. With Benjamin done for the year, Funchess is now absorbing as much as he can at the "X," and the Panthers will be hopeful that he can provide at least a somewhat similar impact on the team's passing game.
Benjamin's emergence allowed tight end Greg Olsen to flourish between the hashes, and helped keep defenses from locking on to the run game. His 6 ft 5 in, 245 pound frame allowed him to win matchups with smaller corners on the perimeter, and he was able to give the Panthers a legitimate red zone threat. Funchess has quite the physical build in his own right, checking in at 6 ft 5 in, 230. Benjamin's raw talent spoke for itself as he came out of Florida State last year, but he was far from a polished wideout. The same can be said for Funchess, who spent his first two years at Michigan as a tight end and was named the conference's best player at that position in 2013. He made the switch to receiver ahead of the 2014 season, going on to snare 62 catches and 4 touchdowns. He played in a somewhat unconventional passing attack in Ann Arbor, and doesn't possess the same athletic traits as Benjamin, but there is no doubt that he will stand to see a massive workload in 2015.
The likes of Jerricho Cotchery, Ted Ginn, Philly Brown and Jarrett Boykin help compose a scrappy receiving corps, but one which is severely lacking in the talent department. Therefore, it will be no surprise to see the Panthers keep an eye on the trade and free agent markets in order to add more talent to the position. As things stand with the current group, it will be crucial for Funchess to emerge as a threat outside if Carolina is to have continued success in 2015. The NFC South remains as up-for-grabs as ever, and with Cam Newton entering the season healthy after spending most of 2014 playing through the pain barrier, Carolina was feeling quite confident as they headed into training camp. Benjamin's injury is sure to rock the boat, but the Panthers will survive if Funchess - whom they drafted strictly to play wideout - can emerge.
While some teams viewed Funchess as more of a "move" tight end based on his build and experience playing the position in college, Carolina liked his size, physicality, body control, and red-zone ability as a match with Benjamin, who though similarly built, is much more of a vertical threat. Funchess can thrive against press coverage by running short, intermediate routes and using his body to make difficult catches in the red zone. He does not have the extra gear that Benjamin does, so the likes of Brown and Ginn will have to play their part in order to keep the safeties honest. If the team can get the ball to Funchess on crossing routes and slants, he will pose a major yards-after-catch threat to opposing defenses with his long legs and smooth fluidity in the open field. He played in multiple spots at Michigan, and could be ticketed for some high-percentage looks out of the slot with Carolina.
Benjamin posted 73 catches for 1,008 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie, making an impact all over the field. He did endure some struggles, such as inconsistent hands and some confusion within the system, and Funchess will likely see his share of ups and downs in his first year. With their main pass-catcher done for the year, coach Ron Rivera will surely look to his run game to help, which could bring more defenders into the box and free some things up on the perimeter for Funchess. Likewise, the passing game will need to click enough to keep teams from keying on the run, and Funchess' development will be crucial in that regard. In the meantime, he can use his physical frame and hands to excel as an outside blocker.
Funchess must also get himself back on the field; he's currently sidelined by a hamstring injury which will keep him out of the team's second preseason game this weekend, though the injury is not considered serious. The mental reps he is getting in practice are important, but the live reps he will miss during the game are tough to simulate. The team's third preseason game next week should paint a good picture of just where Funchess stands at this point in his young career, with week 1 looming.
Before Benjamin's injury, Funchess' ADP was in the 12-14 round range. With his role expanding greatly, that ADP should trend towards the single digits, but owners should be careful not to overdraft based on potential workload alone, or the fact that Benjamin was able to put together such a stellar rookie year of his own last season. That said, there is clearly some major upside here, and Funchess could prove to be a true value pick if available around the 9-10 range.
Not many rookie skill players find themselves in the position that Devin Funchess currently does: slated to absorb a giant workload as a major cog in a playoff contender's offense. Kelvin Benjamin showed us last year that a lack of experience does not necessarily limit what talent can do. Funchess may be inexperienced and will require some seasoning and polish, just as Benjamin did last year. Also like Benjamin, he's very talented, and has the potential to make a big impact as a rookie in both Carolina and fantasy world. Comparisons between the two are easy and natural. Carolina and fantasy owners alike will hope for similar results.