When you’re cooped up inside, you miss the little things.
Like the wind, for instance, ruffling your hair during a full-out sprint. The smell of freshly cut grass. Just how hot the Charlotte sun can be, even now into autumn.
Well, Carolina Panthers receiver Curtis Samuel felt all that and then some this past month.
Samuel, Carolina’s second-round selection in the 2017 NFL draft, dazzled in limited time this preseason after spending much of the offseason recovering from an ankle injury that cut short his rookie year. His team-leading 10 receptions for 180 yards were proof Samuel was ready for a larger role in the team’s 2018 offense under new coordinator Norv Turner.
And then, those plans were derailed.
Samuel missed practice the week before the Panthers’ season-opening victory over Dallas, and on Tuesday of that week, it was reported that Samuel had undergone a minor procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat.
The team’s weekly injury reports have listed Samuel as being out with a “medical issue” ever since, causing him to miss Carolina’s first three games.
But Thursday, coach Ron Rivera got the call from team doctors that Samuel was cleared to practice.
And what do you know, there he was Monday morning, running routes at full speed and chasing after passes with aplomb.
“When I went out there, I was just so excited,” Samuel said Monday. “When I stepped on the field, I was just running. Just to be grateful, the opportunity that I have to play this great game. I was just testing it. I wanted to go out there and run, I hadn’t run in a long time. It felt good running fast.
“I feel a little faster, I ain’t even gonna lie.”
‘I know my body’
Samuel refused to go into further detail about the extent of his medical issue or any procedure he had had, but just that he recognized something wasn’t right with his body and needed addressing.
“I know my body,” Samuel said. “I’ve been playing football for a long time, and I knew something ain’t right. That’s what really triggered it for me.”
And while Samuel remained involved with the team during his month off, still participating in film sessions and studying his playbook, that’s no substitute for playing.
“All this offseason, all the hard work I’d put in looking forward to the first game of the season, and not being able to play really hurt me,” Samuel said. “It was kind of hard for me, just because I wanted to be out there. Like I said, how hard I worked in the offseason just to be able to go out there with my team.”
Carolina’s offense has been a work in progress in the three games Samuel missed, but took a significant step forward against Cincinnati in Week 3, scoring 31 points and accruing 377 yards.
Still, there is always room for growth. And of course, more weapons.
It will likely help Samuel’s re-acclimation that during his time recovering, he was doing well to stay integrated with team. Rivera mentioned the fact numerous times the last month that while Samuel wasn’t running routes or participating in practice, he was keeping his mind as sharp as could be.
“(I was) just staying involved because I knew my time was coming soon and I’ve gotta be ready,” Samuel said of his approach during his time away. “You don’t want to be too separate from the team so when you come back it’s like you’re the new face around here.”
‘I was flying, sheesh!’
Now the question becomes, how quickly will Samuel be re-inserted into the lineup, and what will his role be the rest of the season?
“We’ll continue to watch him, see how his conditioning is,” Rivera said when asked about Samuel’s role. “Obviously his skill set and his speed and his ability to get downfield make him a valuable part of (the offense).”
The Panthers have struggled somewhat this season with connecting on deep passes, even with the speedy Torrey Smith as one of the team’s starting receivers. Aside from D.J. Moore’s 51-yard touchdown against Atlanta in Week 2, quarterback Cam Newton’s longest pass to a receiver this year went for just 27 yards to Devin Funchess (and on that play, a busted coverage on the sideline left Funchess wide open).
Newton’s average pass distance so far this season, just 6.8 yards per pass, is partially because of more targets for Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield, but it also has to do with that lack of true deep shots.
Samuel’s straight-line speed — he ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL scouting combine, second-best among receivers — should help fix that, at least in theory.
That’s especially true if, as Samuel said Monday, he’s even faster now than before his injury.
“I ain’t run that fast in a long time,” Samuel said with a grin after Monday’s practice. “It felt great. I was flying, sheesh!”
Given Carolina’s early bye week (they’ll now play 13 straight games, starting at home against the New York Giants on Sunday), there’s also the state of Samuel’s conditioning to consider. Samuel said Monday he has no restrictions from the doctor, but regardless, he’ll need time to get back into “football shape.”
Then there’s the opposite side of that coin: While he hasn’t played yet this year, he also has the benefit of three fewer games worth of wear in his legs.
So while Samuel may not be 100 percent back for Sunday’s home game against the Giants, at least he’s back, period. And when he does get back to his best playing shape?
“Just to be able to go against guys that’ve been playing,” Samuel said, “my legs are a little fresher, and plus with my speed?
“I think that’s kind of scary.”