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Panthers' Devin Funchess is sneaky-fast -- and he'll let you know it

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Devin Funchess was dog tired. The heat index was about 107 degrees and there were only a handful of plays remaining in Saturday morning’s practice.

So when Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson lofted a deep pass down the right sideline, Funchess had to dig deep.

“I was in the mud trying to run," the 6-foot-4 wide receiver said. “I didn’t have that much speed."

But Funchess had enough speed to get his right hand on the ball. He tipped it up once, and then again with his right hand before corralling it in the end zone with his left for a touchdown.

Quarterback Cam Newton immediately ran to the middle of the field, knelt on one knee and pointed at the third-year receiver.

“We were all out there dying, so I was just out there working and competing and having fun," said Funchess, nicknamed “Fun-Fun" by Newton. “You can’t take it for [granted]. People wish they could switch positions with us all the time."

While his speed wasn’t evident on that play, Funchess has speed -- more than he gets credits for.

His teammates know it, suggesting the former Michigan star would be one leg of a 4X400 relay team if the fastest wide receivers took on the fastest defensive backs.

Funchess knows it, too.

“I know y’all don’t think I’m fast because of what I did at the combine -- broke toe, pulled hammy," Funchess said, reminiscing that he ran a mediocre 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the 2015 combine. “But I’m pretty fast. I can keep up with those guys."

Funchess obviously hasn’t forgotten the criticism he received for his pre-draft 40.

“All y’all said it," he told reporters. “Y’all said it. Other people said it. I don’t take it as nothing. If we go line up, you can’t beat me in a race."

Saturday’s catch was a reminder that Funchess can be a deep threat even when he’s tired.

He’ll need to be now that his role is more defined as the No. 2 receiver opposite Kelvin Benjamin. Last year, he was almost lost in the shuffle behind tight end Greg Olsen, Benjamin and even Ted Ginn Jr.

Coach Ron Rivera admitted in June “we could have used him better." He reiterated that in camp, saying the Panthers had to find more ways to get Funchess the ball.

With Ginn now in New Orleans, there should be more opportunities. Funchess likely will be split wide more often and asked to stretch the field deep, as Ginn did, instead of moving as much between there and the slot.

With the addition of first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey, second-round pick Curtis Samuel and free-agent acquisition Russell Shepard, the Panthers have more options in the slot than ever.

“It’s just exciting to see where the offense is going, getting all the explosive players in position to go out and make plays," Funchess said.

Funchess caught only one pass for 4 yards in Wednesday night’s preseason opener against Houston, but Rivera still found positives in his game.

“I know he had only the one ball, but some of the things he was doing downfield, blocking and stuff like that, you see his development and growth," Rivera said.

The Panthers need Funchess to have a solid year. With opponents focused on Olsen, Benjamin and McCaffrey, the third-year player will be the most likely to draw single coverage.

Funchess appeared set for a big year in 2016 after being unofficially named the most valuable offensive player in training camp. He had only 23 catches -- eight fewer than in his rookie season -- and four touchdown catches.

But Funchess insists he has nothing to prove.

“All these people that say I’ve got expectations," he said, “I just go out there and play my game. I don’t have nothing to prove.

“If the chips fall like they’re supposed to, everything will be said and done."

If Funchess makes plays like he did on the deep ball Saturday, he could be right.

“That was just focusing," Funchess said. “It was coming down to the last couple of reps, legs tired. D.A. threw it out there. Got to go get it."