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How much Devin Funchess will mean to Panthers after 2018 still unclear

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Is Funchess' value diminishing? (2:13)

Field Yates, Matthew Berry and Mike Clay wonder if there are major concerns surrounding Devin Funchess' fantasy output of late. (2:13)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess kept the football after his 4-yard touchdown catch this season against Cincinnati instead of giving it to a fan as he typically does. He had it mounted in a case in memory of his 27-year-old cousin, Marcus, who had recently died.

"That's his ball," Funchess said.

Of his 20 touchdown catches, that time marked the fourth that Funchess has kept the ball.

The first was after the ninth game of his 2015 rookie season against Green Bay, because that was his first touchdown catch. The next was for his grandfather who raised him in Detroit and the third for a military mom.

"If I keep a ball, that means something to me," Funchess said.

Funchess never revealed how his cousin died. He's a private person who keeps much of his life outside of football to himself. He's the same way when talking about growing up in Detroit, where the Panthers (6-3) will be Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET game against the Lions (3-6).

Detroit has a lot of good memories for Funchess.

The city he calls "the hood" also has a lot of bad memories, from being evicted three times to feeling fortunate to have meals of Spam and Vienna sausages to having a mother with a gambling problem to seeing people around him die.

Funchess has done well since the Panthers made the former University of Michigan star the 40th pick in the 2015 draft. Only two of the eight receivers drafted ahead of him have more catches than Funchess' 156 on 292 targets for 2,161 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Amari Cooper, the No. 4 pick by Oakland who recently was traded to Dallas, has 236 catches on 408 targets for 3,316 yards and 20 touchdowns. Nelson Agholor, the No. 20 pick by Philadelphia, has 167 catches on 276 targets for 1,871 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The rest have either underproduced or had injury setbacks.

Carolina thought enough of Funchess last season that it traded 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo and promoted Funchess to the No. 1 receiver spot.

But as Funchess prepares for his homecoming and the Panthers attempt to put an embarrassing 52-21 prime-time loss to Pittsburgh behind them, the question of what Funchess means to the Panthers looms.

It's the same question coach Ron Rivera had in March when debating whether Funchess was a No. 1 or 2 receiver as he planned the Panthers' offseason strategy of how to upgrade the receiving corps through free agency and the draft.

That might have been answered when the Panthers traded starting cornerback Daryl Worley to Philadelphia for veteran Torrey Smith and made Maryland wide receiver DJ Moore the first receiver taken in the 2018 draft with the 24th pick.

You don't make such moves if you believe the No. 1 receiver is already on your roster.

Now the question is: Will this be Funchess' last trip to Detroit as a member of the Panthers? His contract is up after this season, and his statistics don't suggest he'll get re-signed for No. 1 receiver money.

The 22 highest-paid receivers are making between $10 million (Randall Cobb, Green Bay) and $18 million (Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants) a year.

Barring an offensive explosion over the final seven games, there's no way the Panthers would pay that much to Funchess.

There are no guarantees Carolina would pay Funchess in the $5 million-a-year range that Smith is getting this season and next even though Funchess has outperformed Smith, who has missed the past three games with a knee injury.

Not when they have Moore, Curtis Samuel and Smith locked up -- in particular Moore and Samuel, who have shown star potential the past month.

"I've never looked at Funchess as a No. 1 receiver," said former NFL wide receiver Michael Clayton, now an analyst for WDAE 620 radio in the Tampa area. "Guys with that big-play potential who can go up and high-point the football, who have that dominance, he didn't have that when he came into the league, and his route running was a little bit iffy.

"He's gotten better over the four years. He's gotten faster and better in his route running. He's made some big plays. But just on a consistent basis, I don't see a guy who poses a threat to any defensive back."

Young guns

Moore and Samuel have overshadowed Funchess since Smith was injured. In the past three games, Moore has 10 catches for 126 yards and four rushes for 76 yards. Samuel has nine catches for 71 yards and a touchdown, plus two rushes for 34 yards and a touchdown.

Not spectacular, but defenders have to prepare for their speed and versatility.

During that same stretch, Funchess (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) has 10 catches for 103 yards and no touchdowns. His targets have gone from 11 against Philadelphia to 13 over three weeks.

"I don't think he's able to get the separation he needs to make Cam [Newton] feel comfortable throwing to him consistently," Clayton said. "If he played bigger, he could be a dominant force. But because he doesn't possess that, he's just a decent receiver."

Funchess has shown flashes. His 23-yard touchdown catch over the defender at Washington was spectacular. But he doesn't make those as consistently as other No. 1 receivers such as Beckham, Atlanta's Julio Jones and Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown.

Funchess also doesn't show what Clayton calls the "dog in him" like former Carolina No. 1 receiver Steve Smith.

"If he's a dog, they're going to throw him the ball," Clayton said. "If they're not featuring you, then the coaches have doubts. ... He's just a guy that is good at running routes and has a height advantage, but not featured."

Detroit Lions safety Tavon Wilson says Funchess is a big guy who can run. "[Funchess] does great in that offense, makes plays for his team, which is great. ... In the past, a No. 1 outside receiver? Yeah, you could say that," Wilson said.

Funchess took offense earlier this season when it was suggested on social media that he was "soft" because he missed time in a narrow win against the Giants with leg cramps.

He responded on Twitter with this: "PSA for those who don't know I cramp more than the average athlete! However, when I'm on the field you're going to get 110% every trip out of me ! When I can effect the game I will do so for the team! ENOUGH of all this I'm soft stuff. My teammates know how hard I work for them!"

'Sky is the limit'

Funchess appeared on the brink of a breakout season in 2017 when he had seven catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-30 victory at New England. Newton said afterward, "The sky is the limit if he keeps playing the way he's playing."

Funchess went on to have career bests in catches (63), yards (840) and touchdowns (8), but it still wasn't spectacular enough to convince the staff he was the No. 1 receiver heading into 2018.

"If they're bringing in an older guy -- and I know Torrey Smith and what type of work ethic he has -- to fill that [leadership role] need, that says a lot about the lack of that from Devin Funchess," Clayton said.

From what Clayton has seen, Moore has the potential to be the No. 1. If that happens, he could see the Panthers offering Funchess only a contract that would be no more than "half of a No. 1 on another team."

To Funchess' credit, he has never taken his next contract for granted. He put himself on a monthly allowance of $8,000 when Carolina signed him to a four-year, $5.5 million deal. That's $96,000 a year and $384,000 over the course of the deal, which means Funchess has saved plenty for a rainy day.

Growing up in Detroit taught him that.

"Have you ever been poor? Have you ever been through rough times?" Funchess said to ESPN.com during the offseason. "You don't want to go back to none of that bullcrap, right?"

Funchess isn't headed to the poor house. He has performed well enough to deserve a decent second contract, whether it's from Carolina or another team.

And he's only 24.

"In this day and age, [receivers] are making so much money," Clayton said. "I just don't see them breaking the bank to keep him."