By Matt Waldman
(Beginning today, Matt Waldman's Futures column moves to Wednesdays through the 2015 NFL Draft.)
On the surface, it's a convenient answer that dovetails with the executive's take on the Michigan star and the basic argument Jimmy Graham faced during the 2014 offseason when he wanted to get paid.
I also find the comparison wholly off-base. Statements like that make my job as a content writer easier, when these anonymous folks disseminate (intentionally or otherwise) takes from left field.
The most immediate response that I have to the question Is Devin Funchess a wide receiver or tight end? is actually a question: Can he succeed at either?
I haven't seen enough to provide a definitive opinion on Funchess (I'll eventually deliver in April), but I have seen enough to say that having doubts about Funchess making a smooth transition to the NFL is a valid question.
Funchess has the potential to play either role, but the luminescence of those common threads that differentiate the game of an all-around "football player" from a mere prospect -- awareness, physicality, and integrated technique -- are not lighting up in Funchess' game.
Graham was an inexperienced third-round pick with a 6-foot-7, 265-pound frame who could not even make a blocking dummy hit the ground with a correct punch when I watched him in Mobile with Anthony McCoy. Graham earned his admirers despite a limited game and sample size because of his rare athleticism for his size, his work in tight spaces, and his excellent ball skills that translated well from the basketball court.
Funchess is neither 6-foot-7 nor remotely in the neighborhood of 265 pounds. The Michigan prospect is 30 pounds lighter than Graham, and the Saints' tight end did more with a far smaller sample size as a pass catcher than what I've seen thus far from the Wolverines prospect
There are also enough plays on tape to wonder if Funchess can get big enough to become a move tight end. If he does, will he have the athleticism to become an NFL mismatch?
Another question that arises: how physically and technically capable is Funchess of developing into an every-down perimeter receiver? I'm not sold on his perimeter speed.
Fortunately, there's also a scenario where both answers could be negative and he still develops into a productive weapon in the league. Graham, Marques Colston, Jordan Matthews, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Reed, and Jarvis Landry have provided ample evidence that a prospect can have clear limitations as an athlete and technician and still thrive in the right offense.
But the doubts remain for me about Funchess because I’m not seeing in him the bevy of complementary factors that all of these "limited athletes/technicians" listed above possess. If a tight end prospect lacks the size or skill to play inline and he lacks the athleticism to run top-end routes, then it becomes more important that he has a dangerous all-around game with the ball in the air. If a wide receiver prospect lacks the game-breaking speed to stretch the field on the perimeter against cornerbacks, then he better have excellent mitts and handle physical play at the catch point.
Funchess has rough spots that could hamper his development in either direction, and it makes him less a no-brainer than some believe. Today's Futures features five plays against Notre Dame that I'd present to a personnel executive as visual examples of questions that will need confident answers before a team decides what Funchess' role will be in the NFL, much less how good they should feel about pulling the trigger on him in May.
Where Funchess Wins
Allow Funchess to face the ball or give him room to accelerate in open space and his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame becomes a factor in the college game. There are several promising elements to Funchess that can be gleaned from this pass reception from the inside trips spot of this 1x3 receiver, 01-personnel shotgun set.
Despite the fact that Funchess has a clear mismatch in his favor against a defensive end forced to drop into the shallow zone, the receiver displays a sudden turn from his break that is essential for NFL tight ends to exhibit on underneath routes in this area of the field. It's also notable that Funchess snares the ball with his arms well away from his body, and knows that he has open space to drift towards the first-down marker during the catch and prior to making his turn.
However, I dislike the drift here, because when viewing it within the context of other plays I've seen when Funchess is targeted with his back to the defense, he tends to drift, leave his feet, or make odd adjustments against oncoming contact, and subsequently drop the football. It's a bad habit that gives his opponents a chance to make a play.
Returning to the Notre Dame highlight, Funchess displays enough acceleration to earn a clear step on the defender pursuing from the inside. He displays a bit of a plant and cut to the right hash before encountering a triangle of defenders -- but not enough agility to classify him as a dynamic wide receiver carrying the ball in the open field.
A more agile receiver makes a hard lateral cut in this situation -- no stutter steps required. Funchess can't make this type of direction change on set routes right now. It's a common tendency in his game that will require teams to determine if he has the agility to develop the skill or if it's a limiting factor that won't change.
The rest of the play doesn't illustrate the power that one hopes to see from a dynamic tight end. While Funchess might develop that strength at 250 or 260 pounds, the aggression is a question mark.
Funchess drops his pads into the outside defender, who ducks under much of the hit and wraps the ball carrier at the knees, but what accompanies that pad drop is a swat through contact that should have been far more violent.
Mike Mayock tells the audience how much of a load Funchess is during the replay of the run. However, Mayock has the thankless task of assessing what he sees in real time without a true opportunity for close examination. This may be true of other runs he has seen during Funchess' career, but it's not the case here or in any other play during the night.
To the naked eye or a play-by-play analyst with 30 seconds to comment, it appears Funchess could have led with his forearm, but there's no aggression behind it. The arm movement is tentative at best. There's a gorgeous stiff arm of an Appalachian State defender in the 2014 opener, but it was a common theme for Funchess to miss his target when attacking with the free arm in this game.
Funchess displayed these limitations often enough in this game that teams will be required to take a more critical look at what they expect from Funchess and what he actually does.
Big Slot Receivers Have Excellent Hands and Win Position
Funchess has his share of highlight-reel catches where he plucks the ball over the outstretched arms of defenders in tight coverage. But he has to become a more consistent weapon who doesn't win on height alone.
The break leading to the catch point is encouraging. Note the intensity off the line of scrimmage with the pads over the knees, and the way he doesn't sink his hips at the top of his stem. It's not as low as you'd like to see him go, and the esnuing stutter-steps or the drumming of the arms are not a particularly streamlined technique to avoid tipping off the defender sitting on the route. These things need work, and Jimmy Graham should not be his role model.
The tape that should be shoved into Funchess' arms is that of Tony Gonzalez, a 6-foot-5, 247-pound move tight end whose dimensions and playing style are a much better aspiration for Funchess to pursue. This reception from Gonzalez against the Chargers isn't the same route, but it's a similar pattern breaking to the quarterback with a defender over the top. Note the economy of the movement Gonzalez has with his arms and legs and the sudden turn. This is what Funchess much cultivate in his game.
One of the things that made Gonzalez a leading tight end even when his speed advantage was gone at the latest stages of his career was his ability to harness his quickness. Watch how he baits the safety with the speed cut to the outside as if it's just a crosser, but then makes a hard plant and a sudden turn, and angles his body so the safety has to fight through Gonzalez for any shot at defending the target.
I've seen Gonzalez use this sudden turn on the exact route Funchess runs above, and it's something that the Michigan prospect must learn to do if he wants to earn a steady diet of underneath targets as a viable, every-down contributor in an offense.
He'll also need to catch the ball, and the "If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands" technique is not the way to do it. The football is not a fly that will stick to your palms when you smash it. The technique encourages a violent rebound of the ball off the palms. On a target at hip/stomach level, Funchess has to get his hands in a position where his fingers are either pointing upward as the ball arrives, or pointing down and outward.
Cannot Rely on Corners to Bail Him Out
Funchess makes a great play split from the formation on this fade route. However, he never earns the opportunity if the corner doesn't give up the early advantage during the release phase of the route. It's a perfect illustration of Seeing Two Games in One: the performance on tape and how that performance will often play out against a higher caliber of competition.
Forget the catch for a moment, because it never happens if Funchess doesn’t attain separation from the cornerback. The initial footwork off the line is good, but around the fifth step upfield Funchess jabs his inside arm towards the defender.
This is a neophyte move. The only way it will be effective is if it knocks the defender several feet backwards or to the ground. The only reason the Notre Dame defender loses position on this play is that he gets baited into pushing back and doesn't turn and run with Funchess until he realizes that he's behind.
An NFL corner eats Funchess alive for that move. The better tactic is a rip move with the inside, and then the rest of what we see on the tape can still come into play: the framing of separation as the corner tries to pin Funchess to the sideline. The catch is a successful one, but a shaky process in the way it plays out.
It happens even with the best NFL receivers, but I can't say I'm seeing a lot of well-handled contested situations from Funchess. Right now, I'd classify his work as a mixed bag, but I put Brandin Cooks in the same category with contested catches and he turned the corner his rookie year, so it's not too gloomy.
All of the criticisms Funchess earns above are addressable. What might not be is an underlying layer of passivity as a route-runner, receiver, and ball carrier. It's a subtle behavior that's expressed throughout these efforts that is the exact opposite when watching the games of Jimmy Graham or Tony Gonzalez.
Comparing Funchess to either of these players would be unfair to the prospect, those players, and the organization accepting the comp as an expectation. Funchess can still be a productive contributor even with these flaws, but it's these nuances of technique and the attitude expressed through these actions (or lack thereof) that separate the top pros who present mismatches versus starters who play a role and can be replaced when someone a little better comes along.
I'm still not sold on where I'd try Funchess in an offense. He's too light for tight end at this point, but I only see the fluid athleticism on routes that are best for tight ends or slot men. He holds his own better against slower safeties or smaller slot defenders than he does cornerbacks unafraid to play him physically. I lean towards agreeing with Michigan's decision to use him more as a receiver, and the clearest role ahead is a combination of what Carolina and Philadelphia do with Kelvin Benjamin and Jordan Matthews. I like both options more than Funchess at this point.
This examination of Funchess highlights a point that many in the evaluation arena understand, but don't communicate well to fans and media: many prospects taken in the second, third, and fourth rounds are "will-do" options. The expectation is that they'll get the job done for hopefully two to four years, and then the team will move on to the next guy. While teams hope prospects develop into integral, hard-to-replace components of a team, the baseline expectation is that they are temporary stopgaps.
If you're being realistic and not just listening to an anonymous NFL executive feeding the media pre-draft excrement, Funchess is a promising contributor taken in the first half of the NFL Draft and not an early-round superstar-in-the-making.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.