Chuck Burton
August 23, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Cam Newton breaks into a smile, barely able to control his enthusiasm when thinking about the prospect of wide receiver Devin Funchess lining up opposite Kelvin Benjamin this season.

Newton, the league's MVP, may never have to worry about overthrowing another target again given the receiving corps the Panthers have assembled. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Funchess will replace Jerricho Cotchery in the starting lineup, giving Newton another huge target to go along with the 6-5, 250-pound Benjamin and 6-5, 255-pound tight end Greg Olsen in the passing game.

''We've got something only God can give us: size, speed and strength,'' Newton said.

Funchess never got to play with Benjamin in 2015. Benjamin tore his ACL in training camp, ending his season before it had a chance to begin. Funchess went on to catch 31 passes for 473 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie in a reserve role, helping the Panthers reach the Super Bowl and finish 17-2.

With Benjamin coming back and Funchess stepping up, the Panthers didn't attempt to re-sign Cotchery.

Coach Ron Rivera has described Funchess as being ''light years'' ahead of last season. He said Funchess is playing faster and with more confidence.

''You're seeing what he's going to add to the offense,'' Rivera said. ''We saw that at the end of the year last year. Everybody was waiting for him, and then in midseason he kind of came into his own and made some things happen. By the end of the season, he got better and stronger, and that's what he's doing right now, getting stronger, learning the plays. He's learning how to use that big body like Kelvin does.''

Funchess said he feels more comfortable with offensive coordinator Mike Shula's system entering his second season.

''I'm just smoothing out my routes and learning how to use my hands to get off the ball and get separation,'' Funchess said.

Newton, who is 6-5, 250 himself, expects both big receivers will play a huge role in 2016 as the Panthers try to build off a season in which they led the league in scoring.

''The wide receiver position has changed to a degree,'' Newton said. ''You look around the league and see Odell (Beckham), Antonio Brown, those quick little shifty guys. But having a Benji, having Fun(chess), having guys that are 6-5, 6-6 and are able to move and able to jump as well, and you know the average (defensive back) is probably 5-foot-9, 5-10, that size and girth is an edge for you.''

Funchess isn't afraid to get physical either.

In practice Tuesday he took exception to rookie cornerback Daryl Worley's failed attempt to punch the ball out after Funchess hauled in a pass. When Worley's punch caught Funchess in the throat, the receiver wound up in a scuffle on the ground, unwilling to let go of Worley's facemask until coaches came into break them up.

Rivera warned he doesn't want to see that in a game, but it's pretty clear he likes the energy and physicality the 2015 second-round pick possesses.

With Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown, Brenton Bersin, Stephen Hill, Kevin Norwood and Damiere Byrd all competing for roster spots at receiver, the Panthers have some tough decisions ahead further down the depth chart. Rivera doesn't seem to mind.

''It's a good group,'' Rivera said.

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