Panthers WRs, a hot mess last season, now have speed to burn

Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess finished the 2017 season with 63 catches for 840 yards and eight touchdowns. Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers' wide receivers didn't concern Captain Munnerlyn in 2016 when the Minnesota Vikings visited Bank of America Stadium. The nickelback was downright harsh after the 22-10 victory, saying Devin Funchess wasn't "that good" and the Vikings basically focused on Kelvin Benjamin.

Munnerlyn never backed down from his comments, even last season when he rejoined the Panthers after spending three years with the Vikings.

He still stands by those comments, but Munnerlyn has a new appreciation for quarterback Cam Newton's receiving corps, which has been rebuilt since last season. The Panthers were a mess at the position in 2017, finishing 28th in the NFL in passing with 192.3 yards per game.

He has a new appreciation for Funchess.

"The speed is the difference," Munnerlyn said. "I don't know if Cam's had this much speed in the receiving corps since he's been here. Even Funch. Funchess can run. Everybody sleeps on that. I didn't know he could run like that until I got here.

"All the guys can run in their room. I remember looking at those guys' 40 times and nobody is slow in that room. That's scary."

You almost could put together two 4x100 relay teams with the speed this year's group has; whereas, it was tough to get one a year ago. Take a look at their times in the chart.

"Ain't no sleepers," Curtis Samuel, last year's second-round pick, said. "We're all ballers."

Pro Football Focus ranks Minnesota's receiving corps, led by Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, as the best in the league entering this season. Carolina ranks 21st.

Jarius Wright, signed as a free agent after being released by Minnesota, begs to differ.

"I don't like to compare oranges and apples, but if you ask me, this receiving corps, from one all the way down to 12, we have a better group here," he said.

The Philadelphia Eagles completely rebuilt their receiving corps a year ago into a unit strong enough to win the Super Bowl and make backup quarterback Nick Foles the Super Bowl MVP.

Torrey Smith, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, can see Carolina doing the same thing.

"It's a group that's good enough to get it done," he said.

No longer predictable

The Panthers were so predictable at receiver last season, it's partly why they traded No. 1 receiver Benjamin to Buffalo at midseason to get more speed on the field.

Their top receiver was rookie running back Christian McCaffrey with 80 catches. He also has speed, running the 40 in 4.48 seconds at the combine.

But teams didn't fear Carolina's receivers the way they should now. The numbers showed why.

The Panthers group ranked 27th in the NFL in targets (264), receptions (150) and yards (1,922), according to ESPN Stats & Information. They tied for 16th in touchdowns with 13, a career-best eight of those going to Funchess.

There was almost no deep threat. On passes of 20-plus yards, the Panthers tied for 24th with 41 targets and tied for 25th with 12 receptions.

That Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen missed half the season didn't help. Teams didn't have to spend an extra defender on him, and the wide receivers struggled to create separation.

With a healthy Olsen and a new offensive coordinator in Norv Turner, who has Newton focused on more high-percentage passes, Carolina has arguably the most receiving talent around its franchise quarterback since he was the top pick of the 2011 draft.

The production is showing. In three preseason games, the Panthers averaged 244 yards passing, about 50 yards more than last season.

"The sky is the limit for us," Wright said. "We have guys that can do a lot of different things, bring a lot of different things to the game, a lot of playmakers. A lot of playmakers with the ball in their hands."

Is Samuel the wild card?

Deciding which Carolina receivers are the best value in fantasy football won't be easy.

On paper, Funchess is the obvious choice since he led the receiver corps with 63 catches last season. First-round pick DJ Moore is a popular choice because of the hype he got as the first receiver taken in the draft.

But don't overlook Samuel.

He was supposed to be the speed guy last season in the slot, a player who also could shift to running back (same as he did at Ohio State). Because of a nagging hamstring injury during the offseason and preseason, and then a severe ankle injury (broken bone, torn ligaments) in a Week 10 Monday night win against Miami, he never got a chance to make an impact.

"So my mindset coming into this year is be the player I know I can be, play with confidence and show them why they drafted me," Samuel said. "Just be a baller. That's what I do."

No Carolina receiver has been more impressive during the preseason than Samuel, who has a team-best nine catches for 166 yards, even though Funchess and Smith are listed as the starters. He's making the plays from the slot and wideout, and he's using his speed to make yards after the catch.

"Even though we drafted DJ, I felt that was great because we added more weapons to the room," Samuel said. "Defenses can't stop us when you have more weapons on the field."

Speed and talent will make receiver one of the toughest positions when the roster is cut to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. Damiere Byrd, who might be the fastest of all and is in danger of not making the roster, could stick around as a kick returner, but Samuel, Moore and McCaffrey can do that as well.

Entering the season, various publications rank the Panthers' receivers anywhere from 19th to 25th, making their corps easily the fourth best in the NFC South.

There's no Julio Jones or Mike Evans type of receiver, but there is a lot more talent on the Panthers than there was a year ago, even if much of it is untested.

"I like our receiving corps," Munnerlyn said. "Every guy brings something to the table."

And his one piece of advice for opposing defenses?

"Beware of the speed," Munnerlyn said. "Beware."