Devin Funchess and Maxx Williams Need to Be 2 of the Most Impactful Rookies

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMay 7, 2015

Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess (1) celebrates a touchdown in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Penn State in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014. Michigan won 18-13. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Tony Ding/Associated Press

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess and Baltimore Ravens tight end Maxx Williams share a big-man bond as they begin their NFL careers.

They have different titles only because categorizing players is made easier by assigning positions. Yet if they find NFL success, it'll come through similar paths. One player is a former tight end (Funchess) who could be used in that role again, and the other will always be a tight end (Williams).

They were both coveted as trade targets in the second round. The Panthers made a substantial sacrifice to grab Funchess at 41st overall, moving up 16 spots in a trade with the St. Louis Rams while swapping second-round picks and sending off third- and sixth-round picks, too. The Ravens, meanwhile, pushed a fifth-round pick toward the Arizona Cardinals to move up three spots and secure Williams at 55th overall.

And now two large, looming men will be groomed to play two near-mirror roles for their respective teams: the one of wide-bodied football vacuum and the more broad yet critical one of being the final missing piece in an offense.

No pressure, guys.

A closer look at where Funchess and Williams will begin their careers shows why they need to be among the most impactful offensive rookies.

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Funchess can be a pass-catching chameleon

I’ll mostly call Funchess a wide receiver here to avoid any confusion. The Panthers already have a fine tight end in Greg Olsen, who finished with 1,008 receiving yards in 2014, second at his position.

But a label that attempts to slide Funchess into a position box or denote where he’s aligned most often may soon become useless. The title applied to his function in an offense led by an at-times erratic quarterback will be “tower.”

NFL Network @nflnetwork

Throw it up, Cam. Devin Funchess Height 6'4" 1⁄4 Weight 232 Kelvin Benjamin Height 6'5" Weight 240 Greg Olsen Height 6'5" Weight 253

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was often wayward in his fourth season while completing only 58.5 percent of his passes. His accuracy rate ranked 32nd of the 38 quarterbacks who accounted for at least 25 percent of their team’s dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

Those dwindling connection rates communicate two desperate truths about Newton: He regressed in 2014, and to halt said regression he needs a stable of targets with wide catch radiuses who can grapple for highly contested balls.

Enter Funchess, who becomes the third option for Newton with a height of 6'4" and weight of 230-plus pounds.

That’s a heaping load of bulk, and the tandem of Funchess and fellow wideout Kelvin Benjamin can create multiple matchup nightmares. For Funchess the trick will be capitalizing on those mismatches.

His effectiveness in a new offense will depend on exactly how he’s used. As NFL Network’s Albert Breer quite rightfully suggested, assigning Funchess to a “move” role—making him a tight/wide receiver hybrid—would put him in an ideal environment.

Albert Breer @AlbertBreer

Devin Funchess can be a great pick, if Carolina uses him as a Jimmy Graham type. Not nearly as much of a problem for Big 10 defenses as WR.

Ignore the immense skill of the name comparison there, and focus only on the usage.

Recall summer 2014 when then-New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was reaching the end of an arbitration dispute to determine whether he was actually a tight end or instead a wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes. That’s when these percentages were cited repeatedly: The previous season he spent 66.8 percent of his snaps either lined up in the slot or split out wide and 33.2 percent in line as a traditional tight end, per PFF.

Using Funchess in a similar capacity—with roughly a third of his time spent as a tight end—is an ideal direction given his speed and body type. He drips with versatility in that sense, especially after Michigan’s pro day when Funchess vastly improved his 40-yard dash time.

Earlier during the predraft process he posted a disappointing time of 4.70 at the scouting combine’s marquee event. Quickly he had a threatening downward red arrow attached to his draft stock.

Then something clicked after Funchess spent two weeks with a trainer working specifically on his 40-yard dash technique.

David Solano @DavidKIRO7

#NFLDraft The Carolina Panthers trade up for #Michigan product Devin Funchess. Devin's pro day 40-yard dash: 4.47 and 4.53 seconds.

Even before that significant change, Funchess’ game film showed he plays much faster than any stopwatch reading. His size combined with bounding strides can generate opportunities to muscle out defenders on 50-50 balls deep downfield.

Going forward the challenge for Funchess will be winning those battles more regularly. He did plenty of that in 2014 on his way to 733 receiving yards and 62 receptions. Highlights of that season include his whirling acrobatic ball skills for this touchdown.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

And this ball-wrestling win.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

But there was also this dud drop that bounced right off his supersized mitts.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

He dropped 8.8 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2014, as noted by Jonathan Jones of The Charlotte Observer, which was slightly more than the college average of 8.3. In total over three seasons at Michigan he dropped 20 balls.

Being mostly impressive while fighting for receptions and periodically disappointing is a problem Funchess shares with Benjamin. It’s one he’ll have to fix too because, like Williams, his value lies in dominating through physicality while still finishing the job.

Williams is the draft’s best insurance policy

The Ravens’ actions speak louder than their hopeful words about the status of Dennis Pitta, their tight end who has dislocated his hip in back-to-back seasons.

While team owner Steve Bisciotti is hoping and praying for Pitta’s healthy return (via Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun), general manager Ozzie Newsome has been busy using three picks over the past two drafts on tight ends. The latest and highest was invested in former Minnesota Golden Gopher Maxx Williams.

At 6’4” and 249 pounds with king-sized bed comforters for hands (measured at 10 ⅜"), Williams brings to mind a former Raven who was named to two Pro Bowls.

Daniel Jeremiah @MoveTheSticks

Compared Maxx Williams to Todd Heap…no surprise he lands in Baltimore

From Williams’ side the connection to Funchess is seen in his ease of movement. He carries around even more weight than his fellow second-round pick, but that doesn’t stop the 21-year-old from getting vertical when needed and posing a difficult challenge for safeties.

Williams’ 40-yard dash time of 4.78 made him the combine’s third-fastest tight end. It also led to a rather ambitious endorsement from ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

“I think Maxx Williams could be NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year,” said Kiper, via Wilson. “He could be everything Dennis Pitta was when he was healthy.”

In Williams we see another Funchess-like characteristic and one common in modern tight ends: versatility. Though he spent the majority of his snaps as a traditional tight end along the line of scrimmage, Williams was still used either in the slot or split out wide 29.2 percent of the time in 2014, according to College Football Focus.

His body control and ability to get downfield while fighting past contact translated to 166 yards on receptions when he was targeted 20-plus yards deep, which led all draft-eligible tight ends, per CFF. That whole package was on display during a 54-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.

After releasing from the line, Williams faced contact from the linebacker assigned to him in coverage. Losing that physical battle meant he wouldn’t find open space before the pass rush collapsed on quarterback Mitch Leidner.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

His legs kept churning through the contact as Williams thrashed with his hands, powering forward to create separation.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

But he wasn’t done there after completing the catch. He still had athleticism to display and did it while hurdling a defender who wanted to give him a nice fifth-row seat.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Two hybrid athletes

Funchess and Williams are two multidimensional athletes who find success by using the same football toolbox. They’re not burners but still have threatening speed for their size. And they’re both also capable of navigating a sea of hands to find a football.

Now the real task will be taking those qualities and developing quickly enough at the next level to be immediate difference-makers.

In Carolina, Funchess needs to offer Benjamin support. During his rookie season, Benjamin caught 11 of the 27 touchdown passes thrown by Panthers quarterbacks (including playoffs), while all other wide receivers behind him on the depth chart combined for only five scoring receptions. NFL defenses will adjust and won’t allow a singular red-zone focus like that to thrive for much longer.

In Baltimore, Williams will need to do more than just replace Pitta and the departed Owen Daniels. He’ll have to be a set of trusted tight end hands for quarterback Joe Flacco, who has leaned on the position regularly. Ravens tight ends were on the receiving end for 800 of Flacco’s 3,986 passing yards in 2014 (20 percent) and 803 in 2013 (20.5 percent). That usage came even during two seasons when Pitta played a combined 332 snaps, per PFF.

They both have the skill sets to make meaningful contributions right away, and soon it’ll be time to turn potential into production.

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