How Does Curtis Samuel Fit In New Panthers Offense?

Photo: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been drafting D.J. Moore high in your fantasy drafts, don’t read this. 

That’s not entirely fair, of course. A lot of what made the Joe Brady offense so effective at LSU boiled down to the many talents he had at wide receiver, and how he deployed them. In order to go empty as often as Brady did; to run as many RPOs as Brady did; to run as many option routes as Brady did, you need to have multiple top-shelf options at wide receiver. Remember, both Ja’Marr Chase—a likely first-round pick in 2021—and Justin Jefferson, a first-round pick in 2020, had at least 80 receptions, 1,500 yards, and 18 touchdowns. Had Terrace Marshall had a full season, they perhaps would have had a third receiver with quality season-long numbers. That offense let the dogs eat, and Moore is going to eat.

But when looking at the roster this offseason, the inevitable question was: does the Carolina Panthers receiving corps have enough juice to sustain the pass-heavy, empty-set approach that Brady championed in Baton Rouge? The addition of Robby Anderson in free agency helped, but the recent comments from Brady during offseason availability were extremely encouraging for one receiver in particular: Curtis Samuel. This, from the Charlotte Observer

“Curtis is going to be critical to success. I say that, I wish I could have had an opportunity to be out at practices and whatnot, and Curtis is the one that I can’t wait to see him do what he does on the field. Curtis is a playmaker. He fits the mold of what we’re looking for in this type of offense, a guy that you can utilize all around the field and get the ball in the hands and good things happen. I think you saw stuff last year that shows that he can be a big-play wide receiver, down the field. We’re getting the ball in space and I’m excited for him to take the next leap. And I know that he wants that.”

Brady filters his thoughts through the coach-speak translator implanted in every NFL position coach and up, but there is value in what he says here about Samuel. Samuel is a player whose 2019 season—and career as a whole—has been generally undervalued given his unfortunate lack of top production. A stellar deep threat and speedy separator, Samuel was held back last season by the dreadful quarterback play offered him in Carolina. 

According to Player Profiler, 62% of Samuel’s targets were catchable last season, which was 105th in the league—a terrible number. Per PFF, Samuel saw 27 of his 103 targets on routes more than 20 yards down the field, which was markedly above average—but saw only five catchable balls of those 27 targets, hauling in every single one. And according to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, Samuel was an above-average separator on the post, corner, and nine routes, scoring below average on not a single concept. The consensus is clear: Samuel runs a lot of deep routes, and runs them well—but his quarterback struggled to give him a catchable ball, at all three levels and especially deep. 

There was room for Samuel to be more productive, but that room was already occupied by Moore. When I covered Moore’s 2019 season last week, I found a quality receiver against zone who excels at generating YAC on short to intermediate routes, but struggles against man coverage, especially on deeper routes. Moore’s strengths underneath and with YAC, combined with the limitations in Kyle Allen’s game, made him a high-volume stick-mover, limiting Samuel’s value as the generator of explosive plays. In Timid Teddy, the new quarterback for the Panthers, Carolina has once again secured a passer who prefers the shallow target over the deep bomb. Same story for Samuel. 

But Brady remains excited about Samuel in this new offense, calling Samuel a player who “fits the mold” of what they want on offense, in that he can be used “all around the field” and you can “get the ball in his hands and good things happen.” This particular mold that Brady alludes to hearkens back to his usage of Chase, the Biletnikoff Award winner in 2019 for performing better than any wide receiver in the nation. Chase was Brady’s primary receiver, and he lined him up all over the formation, including at times in the backfield, where Samuel already has a history of usage. On the Tigers’ slop concept (slot option), Brady turned to Chase more often than any receiver, because of his ability to read leverage against man coverage and quickly separate.

The responsibility on this route should fall on Samuel before Moore or Anderson, as Samuel is the best separator against man coverage in the underneath areas of the field. Samuel also deals better with press than Moore and Anderson, who was given the least amount of cushion among all receivers in the NFL last season. This also makes Samuel a better candidate for the isolation X opportunities that were afforded Chase last season, like on the Tigers’ RPO glance slants, as those isolated alignments are likely to draw press-man coverage and play to the strength of Samuel’s releases.

Samuel is not Chase. While he has the speed to run Chase’s deep profile of routes, he won’t make the same acrobatic sideline grabs that Chase did, as he was one of the worst contested-catch receivers in the NFL last season, and Chase was one of the best in college football. Of course, the entire idea behind Samuel (and Anderson) as deep receivers is that you hit them when they’re open, which Brady will do—he’ll create the space. It’s Bridgewater that has to deliver.

If you want to complete the exercise in drawing parallels from the Carolina WR corps to the LSU WR corps, then Anderson is Marshall, the gangly field stretcher with a big radius, and Moore is Jefferson, the physical YAC monster that demands touches behind the line of scrimmage and across the middle of the field. The matches aren’t perfect (Moore and Jefferson don’t have nearly the same body type; Chase is more physical than Samuel) but they are helpful in understanding Brady’s comments. 

There’s a lot that Brady can do with both Samuel and Moore. Both deserve touches in space, the ball quickly in their hands, the freedom to line up at multiple spots. But it is Samuel that Brady called critical to the offense; not Moore—it is Samuel that he said has the deep reps on tape from 2019 that prove he can be a big-play receiver. Samuel has yet to be unlocked in the NFL, but Chase and Jefferson alike were yet unlocked in college before Brady got his hands on them. Using the formula that gave his star receiver such delightful opportunities to beat one-on-one coverage and work into space, Brady has the best chance to give us the Curtis Samuel explosion that we’ve all believed was just over the horizon.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Director of Special Projects

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.

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