The flashes have been tantalizing, the year-to-year strides promising, and yet it feels as though Curtis Samuel is still in search of his breakout season.
Despite having his rookie year limited to nine games, the electrifying Panthers receiver has displayed all of the craftiness and agility -- albeit in bursts -- that enticed Carolina to select him 40th overall in 2017. Much like the previous regime, the current coaching staff hails the former Ohio State standout as an important weapon; offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Samuel's third OC in four seasons, took that praise a step further Thursday.
"Curtis is going to be critical to our success. I say that I wish I could have an opportunity to be out at practices and what not, and Curtis is the one I can't wait to see him do what he does best. I think 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," Brady told reporters during a conference call. "You get the ball in his 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, getting the ball in space and I'm excited for him to take the next leap. And I know that he wants that."
Carolina's sudden change under center after Week 2 and the reliability of running back Christian McCaffrey in the passing game last season cut into Samuel's potential to further impact games but he made the most out of his career-high 15 starts.
In his first stint as the Panthers' No. 2 wideout, Samuel appeared in all 16 games for the first time and upped his totals from 2018 across the board, recording 15 more receptions (54) and 133 more receiving yards (627) after seeing 40 extra targets (105). He also led the team in receiving touchdowns after hauling in one more score than the prior season (6).
Subtle improvements aside, establishing week-to-week consistency continues to be one of Samuel's biggest issues. It'll be hard to establish that consistency given the unique offseason and overall change in personnel but Brady's belief in Samuel as the X factor in a room that includes D.J. Moore, who led the team in rec. yards (1,175) and targets (135) in 2019, and former Jets WR Robby Anderson bodes well for the fourth-year pro.
Samuel's development will be high on Brady's list but the offensive focal point is still McCaffrey. The 2019 first-team All-Pro selection logged one of the league's highest usage rates for a second straight year but don't expect the rookie OC to make a rookie mistake by going away from his best player.
"I think Christian had 429 touches this past year. That's a lot, obviously. But if there is one person that can take it, one person that takes care of his body the way that he does, it's Christian McCaffrey, Brady said. "… A lot of it will come down to the rest of the personnel on our team and figuring out how theyt're gonna be utilized. … Depending on how that running back room and wide reciever room, tight end room goes, a lot of that will factor into [his] touches. But Christian will get his touches.''
It's no surprise Brady plans to defer to the all-world talent occupying his backfield but, if he manages to unlock Samuel's potential, Carolina could be on their way to becoming one of the league's hottest offenses.