Football

‘You ain’t seen that last play?’ Panthers Curtis Samuel chases best receiver he can be

Panthers’ Moore and Samuel talk about working together as wide receivers

Carolina Panthers' D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel talk about sharing the ball, helping each other to get better, and keeping opposing teams guessing as who is getting the ball.
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Carolina Panthers' D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel talk about sharing the ball, helping each other to get better, and keeping opposing teams guessing as who is getting the ball.

If you had to pick an offensive MVP through two days of mandatory Carolina Panthers minicamp, you’d be hard-pressed not choosing Curtis Samuel.

The third-year receiver opened the week with a highlight reel touchdown on Tuesday, catching a pass between two defenders before dipping his shoulder and sprinting to the end zone. When Samuel finally slowed at the five-yard line, he strutted into the end zone and flicked the ball out of his hand.

“Y’all ain’t seen that last play?” Samuel joked afterward. “I took off, you know what I’m saying?”

On Wednesday, it was more of the same. Samuel saw reps on special teams — after Damiere Byrd’s offseason departure, the team is looking for its new return man. He also carried the ball, but again made his mark receiving. On one well-timed deep route, he raced past the secondary and into the end zone for a wide open touchdown. He also had a nice sideline grab, completely slowing his momentum to make the catch before turning upfield.

It’s all part of Samuel’s development. But in his mind, there’s a different word defining his offseason:

Dynamic.

“(I want to) be a little bit better than I was last year,” Samuel said Tuesday. “The better I get, the better we become as a team. Playing a bigger role, my impact is a must.”

Samuel has always had the explosiveness and physical talent to become a major piece of the Panthers’ offense. His 4.31 40-yard dash reveals his game-breaking speed, and he showed his elusiveness countless times last season. On just 47 touches (rushing and receiving) in 2018, Samuel racked up 578 total yards and seven touchdowns. That comes out to 12.3 yards per touch, not to mention a touchdown almost every seven times he touched the ball.

So yeah, dynamic.

The issue with Samuel, then, hasn’t been his effectiveness on the field — it’s been keeping him there. His first spring with the team, after he was drafted in the second round out of Ohio State, was slowed by back tightness and hamstring issues. Last year, recovery from ankle surgery kept him from fully participating during the spring, and then a heart condition held him out for the first three weeks of the season.

“I ain’t really had the chance, since I’ve been here, to be healthy in the offseason,” Samuel said. “I wasn’t able to do that all the time last year, just because aches and bruises and things like that. I feel confident. I’m able to have that burst and take my speed up a little bit.”

Alongside 2018 first-round pick DJ Moore and Christian McCaffrey, Samuel possibly represents the future of this Carolina passing game. The team let Devin Funchess leave in free agency, officially lifting Samuel into the role he occupied later last season. But in taking that next step, Samuel has had to prove to coaches that he’s more than just a deep threat with speed to spare.

“He’s always fast and quick, but it’s learning and understanding how to get in and out of breaks, and how to snap out of that break with your hands presenting a good target. His catch radius I think has improved,” coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday. “I just think his overall game has improved.”

The way Carolina’s offense is built under coordinator Norv Turner, the focus is less on one primary receiver and more on distributing the ball. Before shoulder issues last season began derailing Cam Newton’s effectiveness, the Panthers proved they were capable of excelling that way. Between Moore, Samuel, McCaffrey, third-down technician Jarius Wright, and tight ends Greg Olsen and Ian Thomas, there are plenty of weapons at Newton’s disposal.

Samuel showed last season he can make the most of limited touches. Now it’s about finding consistency, both performance-wise and with his targets.

If Samuel keeps playing like he has in mini-camp, assistant receivers coach Jerricho Cotchery said Tuesday, that shouldn’t be an issue.

“The important part is don’t let what you’ve worked on throughout this time go to waste,” Cotchery said. “We’ve got a good system ... We have the talent. Obviously you know you have to stay healthy and things of that nature, but just embrace that.”

Regardless of specific numbers or targets, Samuel is making his primary goal for this season well-known:

Be dynamic, and do it more often.

“When things go down, (I have to) have that energy to bring the team back up,” Samuel said. “Somebody’s got to have the spark.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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