Rivera: Funchess 'light years ahead' entering Year 2

When the Carolina Panthers drafted receiver Devin Funchess in 2015, the plan was to surround Cam Newton with a series of mammoth targets.

Almost immediately that plan was dented with Kelvin Benjamin sustaining a season-ending ACL injury. Funchess then struggled out of the gate as a rookie, catching seven passes in his first seven games, totaling a paltry 90 yards.

The Michigan product came on down the stretch, catching five touchdowns in the final nine regular season games and added a 120-yard receiving day in Week 17.

"Oh, he's light years ahead of where he was," coach Ron Rivera said of Funchess, via the team's official website. "He's confident, he's very comfortable in our system, he understands it. He's shown his abilities, and they're really coming through very nicely.

"If you ask me who is having a good (offseason), I'd say he is."

The 6-foot-4 Funchess must become more consistent in Year 2, especially grasping some nuances of the Panthers' route tree. With Benjamin returning and tight end Greg Olsen still Newton's security blanket, Funchess won't receive a ton of targets, but should see an uptick in snaps in this season. With defenses paying attention to KB and Olsen in the red zone, Funchess could take advantage of matchups to boost his TD total in 2016.

"It's just being more confident and more comfortable with it, knowing what I have to do and where I have to be," Funchess said of his improvement.

The Panthers never got to deploy their complete tall-as-trees pass-catching corps in 2015. Newton still put up an MVP season. With Benjamin back and Funchess improving, the vision should finally become reality in 2016.

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