SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Curtis Samuel breaks cleanly off the line of scrimmage and accelerates downfield. As he slips behind the second level of the Panthers' defense on this sticky afternoon at Wofford College, the secondary is left guessing as to whether the third-year receiver will continue on a straight line or break off his route.
The answer would have been much more obvious a year or two ago, when the speedy wideout often tipped his hand because of a lack of experience at the position. He was a running back in high school before adding receiver responsibilities at Ohio State, but he often won there because of his speed and athleticism. Prevailing at the NFL level requires a heightened attention to detail, which means being able to make every route look the same in its formative stage.
The fact that Carolina's secondary had no idea that Samuel was going to make a sharp cut on an "in" route and go high to pull in a pass that was slightly behind him spoke to how far he has come since being chosen 40th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. It also highlighted why he has been the talk of training camp, with many coaches and teammates believing he is on the cusp of a breakout season.
"He has really improved on his route running," coach Ron Rivera said after a recent practice. "When you watch the way he 'stems,' the way he sets people up, the way he shakes guys at the line -- it's been spectacular to watch. He's done a real good job as far as those things are concerned. He's playing with so much confidence. It's been amazing to watch."
The development of the Panthers' wideout corps is considered critical to the team returning to the playoffs after last season's 7-9 finish. In three of the past four seasons, their leading receiver was a running back or a tight end. Seeking more production on the perimeter, they used a second-round pick on Samuel two years ago and a first-round selection on D.J. Moore last year. Now the pair appears ready to blossom, if training camp is any indication.
"The No. 1 thing that happens with young receivers -- and I've been fortunate enough to be around a bunch of them -- is that they just play faster from Year 1 to Year 2 from doing the same thing over and over," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "You're not thinking; you're just coming off the ball, and then the experience of what we're doing takes over. You do better with route adjustments, you do better when the quarterback is checking at the line. I thought they played the way you'd like the second half of last season, and this year you can see they're both playing better. It's a nice deal where you've got two guys that are pretty complete receivers."
Samuel always has had great potential, but medical issues limited him. He missed the final seven games (including the playoffs) of his rookie season after ankle surgery forced him to injured reserve, and last year he missed the first month of the season after undergoing a procedure to fix an irregular heartbeat. Fully healthy, his understanding of the position is finally catching up to his physical skills, producing wow moments in camp.
Moore is not as precise in his route-running yet, but his physical play made him one of the league's best receivers when it came to yards after contact. He has good speed and strong hands and is expected to do much of the dirty work on inside routes, working from both the slot and the perimeter.
"He gets the ball in his hands and he's just bouncing off people," Samuel said. "It's crazy, he turns into a pinball when he has the ball."
"I don't know where that comes from," Moore said. "I'm just happy I have that ability to make people miss. My mom said it came from me playing Little League (football) when I didn't want to get hit. It just stuck with me."
Turner's history shows that he likes a receiver who can stretch the defense and create opportunities on intermediate routes and check-downs, which is significant because running back Christian McCaffrey is a sure-handed dual threat out of the backfield. If Samuel and veteran Torrey Smith can take the top off opposing defenses, that will create more opportunities for Moore, fellow wideouts Chris Hogan and Jarius Wright, as well as tight ends Greg Olsen and Ian Thomas.
While the performances of Samuel and Moore went largely unnoticed last season -- Moore started 10 of 16 games and had 55 receptions for 788 yards and two touchdowns, while Samuel had 39 catches for 494 yards and five scores over eight starts -- their production was worth noting because it came despite a lack of chemistry with quarterback Cam Newton. Nursing a bad shoulder that required offseason surgery, Newton often did not throw in practice over the final four weeks of the season and struggled to get the ball downfield in games.
"There's excitement to have Cam at full speed now," Turner said. "It doesn't show up here in practice, but defenses have to take into account that he could run on any play, whether it's zone read or a keep. He affects defenses in so many ways that people don't appreciate. He makes it so much easier on everybody else."
In the meantime, the Panthers' receiving corps is flying largely under the radar, which is fine with its members.
"If we're hitting on all cylinders, it's going to be scary," Moore said. "Everybody is a different type of playmaker, so you can't just focus on Cam or C-Mac or just the wideouts. We've got people that can come in and still fill the void if anyone goes down."
Samuel, in particular, is excited about the possibilities.
"I just want to be a big part of this offense, whether it's me with the ball in my hands or without the ball in my hands," he said. "I just want to make an impact out there and help my team win games. I'm feeling great. Everything comes with repetition: The more you do things over and over and over again, it becomes natural. You don't even think about it anymore. I'm just so much more comfortable out there that I can do so much more within the routes, adding my own flavor and extra things to help myself get open. I got a little wiggle. I'm going to show y'all a little something during the season."