Last September as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn threw shade on Carolina Panthers wideout Devin Funchess.
After the Vikings held Funchess without a catch in their 22-10 victory, Munnerlyn said the Minnesota defensive backs concentrated on stopping then-Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin and weren’t worried about Funchess.
“I’m just going to be honest,” Munnerlyn said that day. “Me personally, I don’t think he is that good, No. 17 (Funchess).”
Much has changed in the 16 months since, including Munnerlyn’s opinion of a player who’s now his teammate.
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Munnerlyn is back in Charlotte, having re-signed with the Panthers during the offseason.
Benjamin is gone, traded to Buffalo on Halloween for a pair of Bills draft picks.
And Funchess is where he’s been since the Panthers drafted him in the second round in 2015, albeit with a loftier place in the receiving rotation than he had last year when Minnesota came to town.
When the NFC North-leading Vikings (10-2) visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, they’ll have no choice but to focus more on Funchess, who assumed the No. 1 receiver role after Benjamin was dealt.
And while Munnerlyn hasn’t tried to take back his words from last season when Funchess was an opposing player, he told the Observer recently his view of Funchess as a teammate is decidedly different.
“I wouldn’t say what I said last year about him because he’s definitely my teammate,” Munnerlyn said. “I see the guy work. I see the work that he (does) in practice. I see what he does during the week and his preparation to get ready to play the game.”
Funchess has been among the NFL’s most productive receivers since Benjamin was traded, according to analytics site Pro Football Focus.
He’s averaged 86.5 receiving yards on just more than five receptions a game, with three touchdowns over the past four games. He’s tied for fifth in the league with 2.98 receiving yards per route since Week 9, according to the PFF data.
And yet coaches – and Funchess – say he needs to do more to succeed against the beefed-up coverages he’s now seeing as the Panthers’ top receiving dog.
“He hasn’t hit the ceiling yet, which is a good thing,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “There were a couple plays we were really close on the last couple of weeks with him.”
Funchess was held without a catch during the first half of the Panthers’ critical NFC South matchup with New Orleans last week. And though he finished with four receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown in the 31-21 loss, he was his toughest critic after the game.
Funchess took the blame for a third-down drop in the fourth quarter, and for coming up a yard short on a fourth-and-6 catch on the next play.
Funchess said his drop resulted from a concentration lapse when he was looking to score before securing the ball.
“And then the next play they came back to me and I messed up again. I didn’t get my depth that I was supposed to and I didn’t fight for the first down,” he said. “So that’s on me. I dropped the ball on that one.”
Funchess also blamed himself for the Panthers’ inability to recover Graham Gano’s onsides kick, even though he made a great effort play throwing the ball back in play to Ben Jacobs (officials ruled Funchess was out of bounds when he did so).
That kind of accountability doesn’t surprise Shula.
“He’s very conscientious. Never wants to make a mistake,” Shula said. “He’s always asking questions, detailed questions. I think he’s going to continue to improve.”
The Saints were able to shut out Funchess in the first half by rolling coverage his way and pressing him at the line to make it difficult for him to get into his routes.
And while Funchess has to do a better job defeating the press coverage and getting separation, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it also helps to have other receivers step up.
“Early on when that happens you’ve got to make things happen with somebody else to get the pressure off. And we tried to. We did make a couple things happen,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t capitalize on that opportunity like we would have liked to.”
Slot receiver Russell Shepard agreed with Rivera, saying the other receivers have to make plays when Funchess is drawing extra attention from the secondary.
“You’re going to have teams shade toward him and they’re going to do things to take him out of the game. And they’re gonna allow us 1-on-1s, and kind of take him away and want us to beat them,” Shepard said. “We can help as a group to take that off of him. He’s doing a great job of taking advantage of the opportunities.”
Funchess can expect more of the same from the Vikings, who shut down Falcons Pro Bowl wideout Julio Jones in Minnesota’s 14-9 win last week.
A week after Jones torched Tampa Bay for 253 receiving yards, the Vikings held him to two catches for 24 yards. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, covered Jones most of the game and figures to line up opposite the 6-4, 225-pound Funchess on Sunday.
It’ll be another challenge and another step in the development of the Panthers’ new No. 1 wideout, who said after last week’s loss in New Orleans he was headed “back in the lab to see what I’ve got to do better.”
Shula wants him to cook up some big things.
“I talked to him last week and just said, ‘Hey, think big. Don’t underestimate yourself and your size and your strength. And have that kind of attitude as we move forward with you in this new position.’”