When Curtis Samuel left Ohio State for the NFL, there was a debate over whether his best fit would be at running back or wide receiver. He spent his college days as mostly a gadget player going wherever the Buckeyes needed him. One thing was certain though: the league saw his high upside. He went with the 40th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft to the Carolina Panthers, and they transitioned him to a full-time wide receiver.
He had a slow start to his rookie year (15 receptions for 115 yards, 4 rushes for 64 yards) before an ankle injury in week 10 ended his season. The Panthers then drafted D.J. Moore in the offseason and soon all the Samuel hype was forgotten. To make matters worse, Samuel was slow to recover from his injury, and he missed the whole offseason–as well as the first month of the season. It goes without saying, but as a young receiver you don’t want to miss a chance to become more acclimated to the offense you’re playing in.
How did the rest of Samuel’s sophomore season go? In 13 games of action (only 8 of which he started), he caught 39 of 65 targets for 494 yards and 5 touchdowns. He also rushed eight times for 84 yards and 2 more scores. Paced to 16 games, this would have given him 48 receptions on 80 targets, 608 yards, and 6 receiving touchdowns–in addition to his 2 rushing scores. Curtis Samuel took a big step forward in 2018, and no one seemed to notice. I’ve still avoided the most important question though: is this a fluke, or is it repeatable? Have we found a hidden gem or are we wasting our time on the Panthers #2 wide receiver? Let’s dig deeper.
The Game Tape
Okay so Curtis Samuel put up a decent stat line for a 22-year-old. Is there anything here to get excited about though besides a blind look at the stats? Hell yeah! Convincing you to hop aboard this hype train will only take 1 gif, though I’m definitely going to use more. Seriously, this kid is fun to watch. Let’s start with a run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Here, we see the Panthers running a double reverse to Samuel. He easily gets the first down on the strength of the play call, but he wants more. Instead of running safely out of bounds, Samuel cuts back into the field, makes the defense look foolish, and takes it to the house. Here’s another highlight:
This touchdown catch shows off Samuel’s history as a running back. After the catch, he spins around one tackler and then powers through a gang-tackle to break into the endzone. You don’t typically see this kind of power from a 5’11” receiver. Okay, just one more:
This last play highlights something a little more nuanced about Samuel’s game: here, we see his ability to get open as a pure route runner. This play only works if Samuel either outruns his defender or forces him to make a mistake. Samuel fakes inside, causes the corner to stumble just a little, and gets free for the catch. Routes like this are what give me confidence that Samuel can win without the aid of gimmick plays.
Speaking of Route Running
Okay, so Samuel has made a few great plays; this is true of plenty of young receivers and a much greater number of them never amount to anything. Curtis Samuel’s route running is the factor that truly separates him from the pack. One of my favorite sources for wide receiver data and insight is Matt Harmon and his amazing work on the “Reception Perception” project. Every year, he charts out the routes of the NFL’s receivers, scoring the actual route running itself along with the player’s success against the different coverages they face. These coverages are zone, man, and press.
For Samuel, Harmon charted a 76.6% success rate against man, which puts him in the 94th percentile of all players. He also scored a 74.6% success rate against press coverage to put him in the 79th percentile. After finishing Samuels’ tape, Harmon described him as the best route runner and separator on the Carolina Panthers. He went on to compare him to Stefon Diggs in both his route running acumen and success rates against different coverage types. Curious how D.J. Moore faired? He scored below the 10th percentile against man and press coverage and actually looked similar to Adam Thielen–oddly enough. This just confirms something I’ve thought for the whole offseason: love them or hate them D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel should be ranked closer together than they are.
Going back to Curtis Samuel’s stellar mark against man coverage, we can ask how important such a number is. Here is a list of receivers who finished in the top-10 in success rate against man coverage last year: Odell Beckham Jr., Davante Adams, Michael Thomas, Stefon Diggs, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Curtis Samuel, Keenan Allen, Calvin Ridley, and Sterling Shepard. That’s some pretty elite company to be in.
On top of what an expert says, we can see Samuel’s field awareness by the way he runs his routes. He has exceptional field awareness, frequently picking up first downs and touchdowns. It was common in Samuel’s tape to see him run a yard or two past the first down marker, turn around and catch the ball, and pick up just enough to move the chains. This awareness led to Cam Newton regularly targeting Samuel at the most critical junctures in games. I expect this connection to grow and for Samuel’s TD numbers to be safe as a result. When you trust a guy, you look his way early and often.
Okay, let’s put the hype train in the station for just a second. Based on what I’ve said, we could argue Curtis Samuel should be gone by the 5th round. He’s clearly going to be a WR2 or better, right? Just look at those names I paired him with in terms of success rate against man coverage. How could he not succeed? Well there are some risks here as well, and I’d be doing you a disservice by not addressing them.
Crowded receiving corps: There is a chance that Curtis Samuel becomes the fourth option here behind Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Greg Olsen. Carolina hasn’t ranked inside the top-15 passing offenses in the last 5 years, so this would be a huge problem.
- Why I’m not worried: It’s certainly not a stretch to say that Greg Olsen’s career is just about over. I could see him being much less impactful in 2019 as others have usurped his role. On top of that, I see Samuel having more of a role stretching the field this season (with that healthy Cam shoulder) while Olsen and McCaffrey fight for the shorter throws. Finally, I think talent wins out. Right now, I believe Samuel is the best wide receiver on the team.
Tavon Austin 2.0: When you draft Samuel this year, someone will inevitably dub him a gadget player and remark “Gadgets get lost in the couch cushions.” Samuel scored on some trick plays (the double reverse above) and this is troublesome if it’s a player’s only means to success. Those kinds of guys soon disappear into obscurity, or their success is too unreliable.
- Why I’m not worried: Curstis Samuel can do so much more that this argument feels like a lazy one; I’ll use Tyreek Hill as my example. Hill was another fast young player who could score in a bunch of different ways (runs, returns, and catches) and he was also underrated for his receiving abilities (72% success rate vs man coverage). Sure they succeed in different ways: Hill uses pure speed while Samuel seems better at working through traffic. I’m convinced, though, that neither is “simply a gadget,” and that the story on Samuel will change by year’s end.
Curtis Samuel’s health: Samuel had a busy 2017 in terms of injuries. He broke a bone and damaged a ligament in his ankle, he missed a week with a back issue, and he had hamstring issue during camp. Then there was the procedure to fix the irregular heart beat. Samuel is only 5’11” and 195lbs, so most defenders he faces will have size on him–and the chance to put him back on IR.
- Why I’m not worried: All of this being said, Samuel was fine once he got healthy last year. The heart issue is not as uncommon as it would sound, and it’s usually not even disclosed when players deal with it. The other injuries seem like isolated incidents, and I would label Samuel a lower injury risk for this year than he would first appear to be.
Cam Newton’s shoulder: The last concern I feel worth mentioning is Cam Newton’s shoulder injury. Newton played hurt last year, and it was clear down the stretch; he simply couldn’t throw down the field like we’ve seen him do year after year.
- Why I’m not worried: Newton had the injury cleaned up in the offseason, he’s been throwing a regulation NFL football, and he’s going to be a full participant in camp. I think Newton should be fine health-wise, and I also like Will Grier behind him in a worst case scenario. Even if Newton is still hurt, Samuel did plenty of damage late last season, so I have faith in him adapting as necessary.
Right now, D.J. Moore has an ADP at the end of the sixth round. Curtis Samuel doesn’t go off the board until the end of the 10th round. I think both players are comparable in opportunity and ability, but one comes with a much cheaper price tag. To be honest I personally like this cheaper option more anyways at an equal price. When I’m stuck between two players, I love to let the price be the deciding factor: I’ll take Stefon Diggs (ADP 4.05) instead of Adam Thielen (3.09) this year. I’ll take James White (7.03) or Damien Harris (10.07) instead of Sony Michel (4.06). I’ll take Rashaad Penny (6.04) instead of Chris Carson (4.08) and you know I’ll take Curtis Samuel over D.J. Moore.
Featured image by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)