Carolina Panthers

Sunday game changer? It’s a Panther who’s finally healthy, has speed to spare

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel (10) dives past the New York Giants’ Landon Collins (21) for a touchdown in the first half on Sunday, on his first reception of the season.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel (10) dives past the New York Giants’ Landon Collins (21) for a touchdown in the first half on Sunday, on his first reception of the season. AP

Each week the Carolina Panthers play in 2018, the Observer will choose a potential game changer — the player most likely to make a huge impact on the game. This week’s choice:

WR Curtis Samuel

So, that was just a taste, huh?

For all the highlight-reel moments during Carolina’s 33-31 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday, right up there at the top of the list was Curtis Samuel’s twisting, swirling, tackle-breaking 25-yard touchdown. It was Samuel’s first career score, a simple tunnel screen ... and the second-year receiver took it past half the Giants’ defense and into the end zone.

Not too shabby for your first touchdown of the season.

“The coaches put the ball in my hand because they know I can make plays like that,” Samuel said this week. “My mindset was to go score. Once I started breaking tackles and once I saw the end zone, it was over.

“There was nothing they could do to stop me.”

And although Samuel, who is 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, missed the team’s first three games while recovering from a procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat, his return to the lineup couldn’t have come at a better time for Carolina’s offense.

Despite a plethora of weapons at quarterback Cam Newton’s disposal — everyone from running back Christian McCaffrey to receivers Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, and first-round pick DJ Moore — the Panthers’ passing game through four games has been underwhelming.

Newton is throwing for just 211 yards per game, giving Carolina the 25th-ranked passing offense in the league.

And while Newton has played well this year, the reason for such a depreciated passing offense has largely been shorter passes. Newton’s average pass is for 6.8 yards, also 25th in the NFL.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton speaks about the importance of yards after the catch following Sunday's win over the New York Giants 33-31 at Bank of America Stadium. Newton says that the receivers are peaking at the right time.

And the Panthers have struggled with deep balls.

Enter Samuel, who is finally healthy and has speed to spare.

“That boy is explosive,” receiver Devin Funchess said Thursday. “It’s good that he came back and showed the world what he has.”

Samuel clocked a 4.31 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL scouting combine, and he admitted that he felt even faster than that the first day he returned to practice last week. The hope now is that Samuel’s straight-line speed will take the top off of opposing defenses and help unlock Carolina’s true offensive potential.

First, he has to continue getting back into game shape.

Samuel only caught one other ball against the Giants for 12 yards, so his fitness after a month-long absence is still a work in progress. But so long as Samuel keeps making plays like he did last Sunday, coaches will be forced to give him more reps, more action, and more shots called his way.

“You want to get a play started, and then we tell them, ‘We’re trying to put you in a position where you can use your ability,’” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “Curtis has that type of ability. That’s what type of things he did in college, and we’ve just got to continue to work to get him comfortable with more and more things so he can get the ball in space and do his thing.”

So, yes, perhaps Sunday’s score was just a taste of Samuel’s potential. Scratching the surface, if you will.

But how much more does Samuel have to show, and how much more of an impact can he make for this vertically-challenged offense?

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Samuel said. “Trust me when I tell you.”