Deciding if Devin Funchess is a No. 1 or 2 receiver a key for Panthers' offseason

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Devin Funchess finished last season as the No. 1 wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner likes what he’s seen so far on tape out of the 2015 second-round pick out of Michigan.

But is Funchess really a No. 1?

That’s what the Panthers are trying to decide as they prepare for free agency and the draft.

Coach Ron Rivera said on Thursday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis that a lot of time has been spent discussing where Funchess fits in and how that impacts the direction in which the Panthers build a complementary group around him.

If they decide he’s a No. 1, do they sign a No. 2 in free agency or select one in the draft? If he’s a No. 2, do they get a No. 1 in free agency or gamble on that player in the draft -- likely with the 24th pick?

Rivera also said he’d like a veteran presence in the receiver room, an indication either way the Panthers will sign somebody in free agency.

“Yeah, it is a big piece for us in this offseason as far as free agency and the draft,’’ Rivera said.

Rivera acknowledged that Turner likes Funchess, who inherited the No. 1 receiver role midway through last season when Kelvin Benjamin was traded to Buffalo so the Panthers could get more speed on the field.

He also said until Turner sees the 6-foot-4 receiver in offseason workouts and minicamp he won’t have the full picture on how he fits into his scheme.

But at least for the sake of free agency that begins on March 14 -- or the 12th when you consider that is the start of the legal tampering period -- the Panthers don’t have long to make up their mind.

Or maybe it will be made for them, depending on who they get.

Allen Robinson, who turns 25 in August, arguably is the best receiver available. But Jacksonville appears intent on re-signing the player who appeared in only one game last season before suffering a season-ending ACL tear.

As the Panthers saw in 2016 with Benjamin, it sometimes takes a full season before a receiver who suffers an ACL injury gets back to full form.

They could trade for Jarvis Landry, who had a $16 million franchise tag placed on him by Miami. Yet that would be costly, and teams usually franchise players they want to keep, not trade.

Terrelle Pryor, 28, is a veteran wide receiver who caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards for Cleveland in 2016. But injuries reduced him to 20 catches for 240 yards in nine games for Washington last season.

Among others set to hit the market are Sammy Watkins (25), Marqise Lee (26), Donte Moncrief (25), Paul Richardson (26), Mike Wallace (27) and Eric Decker (31). But none of those jumps out as a clear No. 1.

The draft could be a more viable solution to finding a No. 1 if the Panthers decide Funchess, who caught 63 passes for 840 yards and eight touchdowns last season, is a No. 2. Then you are counting on a rookie, and they often struggle at this position.

There aren’t a lot who step right in and make a huge impact as Odell Beckham (91 catches, 1,305 yards, 12 touchdowns in 11 starts) did in 2014.

Alabama’s Calvin Ridley (6-1, 188) is considered the best of this year’s receiver class, but he’s expected to be selected well before Carolina's spot at 24. If you don’t trade up you’re deciding between players like SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, Oklahoma State’s James Washington, Indiana’s Simmie Cobbs Jr. and a few others.

They could be a reach in the first round, and again, likely not an immediate No. 1.

The Panthers have others on their roster to work with. Curtis Samuel, a second-round pick out of Ohio State, was viewed as a dynamic slot receiver before injuries slowed and ultimately ended his rookie season. He’s recovering from ankle surgery to repair ligament and bone damage, so his timetable for returning is uncertain, although Rivera said Samuel “looks good’’ in rehab.

Damiere Byrd, who also is a speed threat, saw his 2017 season end with a lower leg injury. However, the 2015 undrafted free agent out of South Carolina is small (5-9, 175) and more of a complementary piece than a No. 1 or 2.

Russell Shepard signed as a free agent a year ago, but he had only 17 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown. And Rivera didn’t even mention the 27-year-old as a potential veteran presence in the receiver room.

So Funchess is key in many ways, including contractually. If the Panthers see him as a No. 1 they likely would want to sign him to an extension prior to the season. Not to would risk him having a breakout year and demanding an even higher deal.

When asked specifically what Funchess is to the team, Rivera offered no hints.

“A lot,’’ he said, “depends on who’s available.’’