CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess thought enough of his basketball prowess before the 2015 draft that he posted a video of himself dunking and jumping so high that his head reached the level of the rim.
He told reporters at the 2015 NFL combine that Michigan basketball coach John Beilein asked Funchess to walk on after seeing him fooling around in the gym as a freshman.
"I think he was serious," the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Funchess said at the time.
So it should come as no surprise that Funchess this week used a basketball analogy when asked why his production on the football field has dramatically surged upward.
“Steph Curry doesn’t just go in the gym and make all of his shots," Funchess said. “I’m not saying I’m Steph Curry. Compare me more to, like, a LeBron [James] because I can do everything.
“You’ve just got to go out there and find your rhythm, man."
Funchess averaged 32.8 snaps a game last season, when he caught 23 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns. He’s averaging 53.3 snaps in six games this season and already has 27 catches for 305 yards and three touchdowns.
His touches could go up even more on Sunday because No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin is hampered a bit by swelling in his left knee. Benjamin did not practice on Wednesday and Thursday but returned Friday, and coach Ron Rivera expects the 2014 first-round pick to play.
“Playing 20 plays, you can’t really do nothing," Funchess said. “Now that I’m playing 40 plays, I’m in a groove. I’m out there making the most of my opportunity."
Rivera admitted during training camp that the Panthers needed to create more opportunities for Funchess this season, and should have created more last season.
“He kind of became the forgotten guy," Rivera said of Funchess. “I think we tried to force things too much to Kelvin. Now we’re letting things happen more naturally between Kelvin and Devin. So whatever they get, they get because that’s part of the read."
Funchess already has been targeted 44 times, only 14 fewer times than he was targeted all of last season. His catch percentage has risen from 39.7 in 2016 to 61.4.
He’s become a legitimate threat and opposing defenses can’t ignore him.
That he can play all three receiver positions -- thus the comparison to James, who can play any position on the court -- works to his advantage.
But in training camp Funchess seemed to flourish the most when playing the X-receiver spot, where Benjamin plays, in part because that’s often the first read out of the offense.
Receiver Curtis Samuel, a 2017 second-round draft pick, also should see increased playing time this week. His ability to stretch the field with his speed could help open up the struggling run game the way former Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. did as a deep threat in 2015 and 2016 (Ginn is now with the New Orleans Saints).
Teams have been loading eight in the box the past two weeks and the Panthers have a combined 108 yards rushing, 71 by quarterback Cam Newton.
Samuel has been hampered by a hamstring injury that kept him out for much of training camp. He’s been targeted only twice, with no catches, in the last two games after being targeted eight times with four catches in the previous two games.
He appears ready to go on Sunday.
“We want to open up every opportunity to put the ball in his hands as well," Rivera said. “He’s a dynamic, explosive player. He just needs to get the ball in his hands. We’ve just got to find more opportunities for him."
The Panthers already have seen how that has benefited Funchess.
“Playing basketball, that’s how I just relate my game," Funchess said. “I’ve got to go out there and get a couple of shots."