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The Carolina Panthers have spent the last year revamping its receiving corps, trying to assemble a mix of versatile skill sets around franchise quarterback Cam Newton. Whether it was trading away former go-to target Kelvin Benjamin, using its first-round selection on DJ Moore, trading for Torrey Smith or signing Jairus Wright, there has been a clear emphasis from Carolina’s brass to improve the position group.

But the receiver who is turning heads and carving out a role for the Panthers is 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel who battled injuries throughout his rookie season and made very little impact. Entering year two of his career, Samuel appears primed to flip the script.

Making dazzling plays this preseason, Samuel has hauled in nine receptions for 166 yards through three games while only playing in portions of games given the preseason rotations. Considering where Samuel was entering the NFL, the traits he’s illustrated in preseason games indicate considerable growth from the player he was at Ohio State and as a rookie last season.

Lacking a defined role as an Ohio State Buckeye, Samuel made plays in a variety of ways whether it was as a runner, receiver and occasionally a returner. His versatility was his own enemy because he wasn’t polished at any one position.

Samuel’s trump card has always been his blazing speed. Clocking a 4.31 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, Samuel was able to simply outrun opponents in college and produce big plays. His speed helped hide his lack of vision as a runner and lack of nuance as a receiver.

Specifically as a receiver where he’s going to make his hay in the NFL, Samuel did not display natural hands or ball tracking skills and was guilty of frustrating drops and allowing the football into his frame. He just did not appear natural as a pass catcher in college and it appeared his NFL role would come as a space player who received manufactured touches to take advantage of his play speed.

This preseason has been a different story and Samuel is showcasing a skill set that will demand regular opportunities to produce in the regular season.

Against Buffalo in the Panthers’ first preseason outing, we got our first taste of the new and improved Curtis Samuel. On this rep, Samuel elevates for the football in a crowd, snatches the ball cleanly away from his frame before tucking it in and showcases good concentration to bring in the football despite a defender extending his arm and blocking a clear view of the football.

Things continued in Carolina’s second preseason contest against Miami. On this play, Samuel uses his footwork at the line of scrimmage to achieve a clean outside release on Miami cornerback Cordrea Tankersley. With no disruption in the contact window, Samuel is able to use his world-class speed to create vertical separation, but an under thrown ball forces him to adjust and work back to the football. This is an impressive display of ball tracking skills, making an adjustment and winning in a contested situation with great body control.

The highlights continued for Samuel against New England where Samuel led Carolina in receiving yards for the second straight week. Again using his rapid acceleration ability to create separation from Patriots’ DB Keion Crossen – who clocked a 4.33 40-yard dash at his Pro Day – Samuel glides across the field to provide an open target. Samuel fully extends his arms away from his body to snatch the football out of the air and complete the reception. Yes, Samuel could have turned his palms up to make an easier catch with the correct technique, but Samuel plucks it how he is comfortable and looked natural doing it.

There’s so much to be encouraged with regarding Samuel’s development and how that has shown up in preseason action. After Carolina’s 25-14 win over New England, Newton affirmed Devin Funchess and Torrey Smith as his No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, leaving Samuel, Moore and Wright vying to be the third option when the Panthers have three receivers on the field. And while competition brings out the best in everyone, Samuel is making a strong case for himself and providing the spark Carolina envisioned when drafting him No. 40 overall in 2017.