Captain Munnerlyn not afraid to speak his mind, even if it stirs controversy

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Captain Munnerlyn could have avoided the locker room on Wednesday, as a lot of NFL players do when they know they’ll be a target for reporters.

Instead, he embraced the opportunity to talk. And then some.

The Carolina Panthers nickelback answered questions from at least three waves of media as he prepared to face his former team, the Minnesota Vikings. He did this knowing that not all the questions would be easy to answer.

He admittedly left “millions on the table" in March to leave the Vikings and return to Carolina, where he was a seventh-round pick in 2009. With the Panthers, he wasn't happy with his playing time -- he was outspoken about it earlier this season -- but he says he has embraced the situation.

And, oh, he still owned his insults of Carolina wide receiver Devin Funchess after last year’s game in which he was on the good side of a 22-10 Minnesota victory against the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.

In case you forgot, Munnerlyn said the Vikings weren’t worried about Funchess, then the No. 2 receiver behind Kelvin Benjamin. His words were harsh.

"I’m just going to be honest," Munnerlyn said at the time. “Me, personally, and I never talk like this, but I don’t think he is that good, No. 17."

When asked about that now, Munnerlyn flashed a smile so big that it defused any thoughts that there might still be hard feelings between him and Funchess.

"Me and Funchess, we were getting into it in the game," Munnerlyn said. “That’s what brung that out. We kept butting heads, talking trash. I’m like, ‘Man, you’re not open.’ He’s like, ‘Throw the ball.’ I’m like, ‘You’re not open.’

“So that’s how that started. I just spoke how I felt at the time."

Munnerlyn now praises the former Michigan star, the No. 1 receiver since Benjamin was traded to Buffalo last month. Munnerlyn is as believable with that as he was with his insults.

"At the time, I didn’t [think he was good]," Munnerlyn said. “But right now, he’s definitely playing great. He’s our No. 1 receiver and playing lights-out."

Funchess has 21 catches on 32 targets for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the four games since the Benjamin trade. He had 23 catches for 371 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games last season.

He has played well enough that Munnerlyn predicts the Vikings will have Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadow Funchess the way Rhodes does the top receiver for most teams. And Munnerlyn says Funchess deserves that kind of respect.

"You see what he’s doing lately?" he said. “He’s been putting up numbers, so they definitely will be paying attention to him."

Munnerlyn also could play a big role in this game. His snap count, which reached a low of 10 in a Week 7 loss to Chicago and was at 26 in last week’s loss to New Orleans, is expected to increase. With outside linebacker Shaq Thompson expected to miss the game with a foot injury, Munnerlyn will pick up snaps in nickel situations.

Because of his personality, he could provide a much-needed spark for a defense that has surrendered a combined 58 points in the past two games.

"He’s a guy that can bring energy, and when he does bring the energy, guys can feed off of it," coach Ron Rivera said.

The Panthers spent the past three years trying to replace Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota prior to the 2014 season because Carolina didn’t have the salary-cap space to compete for him in free agency. They were unsuccessful, for the most part.

"It was very difficult," Rivera said. “His productivity for us was solid. We just never were able to emulate that over the years he was gone. So we just figured, why not bring the guy back that has that kind of ability? He’s been solid for us.

“I know his frustration of not getting as many snaps as he’d like, well, sometimes be careful with what you ask for because you’re about to get a whole bunch with Shaq's situation," Rivera added.

Munnerlyn (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) seldom is careful with what he says. It’s part of what he calls his "little man syndrome" that doesn’t allow him to back down from anything. He still considers himself a "miracle baby" after he was born three months premature.

Munnerlyn gets picked on a lot by teammates and coaches because of his size -- but not by opponents.

“He’s one of those guys that he accepts a challenge, he can laugh at himself," Rivera said. “He can dish it out as well as he can take it."

Both Rivera and Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer laughed when asked to share their favorite Munnerlyn stories, saying there are none they could share publicly. Munnerlyn seemingly understood.

But he could create another good story on Sunday if he takes the same attitude against Minnesota that he did against Carolina a year ago. That is his plan.

While he fondly recalled being driven in the snow by tight end Kyle Rudolph because he was "afraid" to drive in snow and talked with great pride about the influence he had on the development of Rhodes (he also spent part of Wednesday’s locker room period trying to help Rhodes get extra tickets for Sunday), Munnerlyn wants to beat the Vikings as badly as he wanted to beat Carolina last season.

“To see those guys 10-2, I’m happy for them," Munnleryn said. “But when they leave here, I want them to be 10-3. ... I want to beat them. I want to beat them bad. I want to do what I do, have a good game and talk a little trash."

What Vikings receiver might he call out as not very good?

Munnerlyn flashed his big smile again and said, "I won’t say that until after the game."