For the first two weeks of training camp, there was a lot said and written about second-round draft pick Donte Jackson’s speed and third-rounder Rashaan Gaulden’s hits.
The Panthers’ two fourth-round picks — tight end Ian Thomas and defensive end Marquis Haynes — also had been impressive in the early going in Spartanburg.
Meanwhile, the darling of the draft class — first-rounder and former Maryland wideout DJ Moore — kept showing up at practice and studying his playbook while waiting for the moment when his playmaking skills could best be displayed.
That moment arrived in Thursday’s exhibition at Buffalo, where Moore reeled in four passes for a game-high 75 yards in a 28-23 victory over the Bills.
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It wasn’t just the yardage, but how Moore got there. When the Panthers drafted Moore 24th overall in April, many observers compared his after-the-catch abilities to Panthers great Steve Smith Sr. — including Smith himself.
But it’s tough to make a lot of jaw-dropping moves in practices when defensive players aren’t really tackling. So Moore was looking forward to facing a team that would try to hit him — the operative word being “try.”
“It was fun just to play people outside of ourselves,” Moore said. “So when we went out there, I was just happy to be playing somebody else.”
Moore did not start Thursday, but came in during the first series and was targeted by Cam Newton on a third-down throw that was batted down.
Moore ended up catching passes from all three quarterbacks — Newton and backups Garrett Gilbert and Taylor Heinicke. He averaged 18.8 yards per reception — and opened the eyes of teammates who’d glimpsed his game-changing skills occasionally in Spartanburg, but mostly from watching his college highlights.
“You can’t really get a feel for it (at training camp practices). But seeing him play out here today, you see why he got drafted where he got drafted at,” running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “He can make guys miss. He’s a special athlete.”
The Panthers’ receiving corps has largely been lacking an athlete like Moore, a Philadelphia native who finished fifth on Maryland’s career lists in receptions (146), sixth in receiving yards (2,027) and fourth in touchdown catches (17).
After drafting Moore in April, general manager Marty Hurney said Moore was like a running back after he caught the ball, while Smith said the Panthers hadn’t had a dynamic receiver like Moore since Smith was cut after the 2013 season.
Moore’s longest catch against the Bills was a 32-yard gain on a deep route in which Heinicke underthrew him.
“I heard everybody screaming, ‘ball,’ when it was on the air, on the sidelines,” Moore said. “So it made me turn around quick. So I was like, ‘Oh, there go the ball.’”
But his signature catch came later in the same drive on a crossing route in which Moore eluded four defenders — and one of his teammates.
After nearly colliding with receiver Mose Frazier on his under route, the 6-foot, 210-pound Moore pulled in a short pass from Heinicke. He made a jump-cut to elude one Bills defender and nearly stumbled before avoiding three more tacklers.
“We weren’t supposed to collide. But it was just the way the defense presented itself. So we just got stuck in between the routes,” Moore said. “But once I got open and saw the ball come, it was what I do after the catch.”
The 16-yard gain converted a third-and-9, and Moore might have scored if one of the Bills defensive players hadn’t grabbed a piece of his face mask.
“That kind of slowed me down,” Moore said. “I was kind of upset.”
The catch-and-run and face-mask penalty set up C.J. Anderson’s 4-yard touchdown run a play later, giving the Panthers the lead for good early in the fourth quarter.
It also represented what offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been trying to instill in all the quarterbacks: Don’t force a pass into coverage downfield when there are ample playmakers who can turn shorter throws or checkdowns into sizable gains.
“It was a third-and-(9) down in the red zone, and I just threw a little drag to DJ and he made about three or four guys miss,” Heinicke said. “It’s pretty neat to see what he can do with the ball. It’s a quarterback’s dream — throw the ball 5 yards and he makes a 15-yard gain.”
Moore, who also lined up as a kick returner but didn’t get a chance at any runbacks, said he’s tried to develop a chemistry with all three quarterbacks, knowing he could get in at any time during the preseason.
He said the crossing route he described was his favorite play of the game — a replay of which was featured on the Panthers’ Twitter account.
As of early Friday morning the video had been viewed more than 320,000 times, including at least once by Moore.
“I didn’t even know it was up there already,” Moore said after the game. “But I guess I’ll take a look at it.”