Cam Newton praises young receivers
In the Carolina Panthers’ Week 9 drubbing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, linebacker Luke Kuechly was mic’d up when receiver Curtis Samuel caught an acrobatic touchdown in the fourth quarter.
It was his second touchdown of the day. The first was a dazzling double-reverse, during which Samuel ran 103.4 yards from sideline to sideline according to NFL NextGen stats, and 33 yards downfield to score.
“Can we just give the ball to Curtis every play?” Kuechly joked on the sideline. “He scores every time!”
Kuechly unknowingly echoed what many Panthers fans have been saying over the past few weeks, especially as Samuel has become one of the most efficient receivers in the league.
The second-year receiver, Carolina’s second-round draft pick out of Ohio State in 2017, has touched the ball 21 times in 112 offensive snaps. He also missed the first three games of the season after undergoing a procedure to fix an irregular heartbeat.
In those 21 touches, he has scored five times, 24 percent of his total touches. For perspective, if Carolina’s No. 1 receiver, Devin Funchess, scored on 24 percent of his touches, he’d have 10 touchdowns (he has three).
Samuel has been targeted 23 times as a receiver, and has caught 17 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns. He also has four carries for 43 yards and two touchdowns.
Because Samuel seems to make an incredible play nearly every time he is the targeted receiver, there is reason to question why he has only played 17.6 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps.
And yet ...
“There is no question,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said on Thursday afternoon. “We are working constantly, since he came back from having the issues with his heart and the surgery, we’re working at expanding his role, giving him reps at different spots and giving him opportunities to go make plays, and he’s certainly responding.
“We want to use him as much as we can. That’s our intention, and that’s what we’ll do.”
For the first time since the 2015 season, the Panthers have a group of receivers who complement each other.
Each player has a different skill set. Funchess largely plays on the outside as the No. 1, or “X,” receiver. When healthy, veteran Torrey Smith is the deep threat and lines up at the “Y”. Veteran Jarius Wright plays out of the slot and usually situationally.
And of course Carolina has Greg Olsen running short and intermediate routes, which, alongside Smith’s deeper routes and Wright’s mid-field routes, help clog defenders and free others, depending on the play call.
And the Panthers utilize running back Christian McCaffrey in the passing game, either lining him up at any receiver position or motioning him out of the backfield. That adds another layer for a defense to take into account.
And then, Carolina has versatile, speedy Samuel and rookie receiver DJ Moore. Both can plug in at any receiving position, run any of the above routes and also be used on misdirection plays such as reverses.
It’s an unprecedented level of offensive versatility for Carolina.
But it also means that Panthers have a lot of mouths to feed as players rotate in and out of the game.
One of the most important details in Turner’s offense is the emphasis on ball distribution, and that’s the first thing head coach Ron Rivera says he looks at on the post-game stat sheet.
Ultimately, it’s this simple: The player who gets targeted is based on the situation, the play call and the decision made by the quarterback when multiple options are available.
Everyone has a job to do.
“I think guys play their roles, more so than anything else, and that’s the biggest thing is that guys play the roles that we need them to,” Rivera said. “People ask all the time, ‘How come he’s not playing more?’
“Because the way Norv sets things up, it’s about what your role is and where you fit. And about how the play is designed. And I think that’s probably the more important thing, is how does he fit into his role?”
Because Turner’s offense in its complete form requires so much rotation and ball distribution, some games feature certain players more heavily than others as the scheme constantly adjusts in-game based on situational factors.
Even McCaffrey, who leads the team in receiving targets, had 14 in Week 2 and just two in Week 3.
“It’s not one guy. We’re not going into a game plan (thinking one guy) is going to see 10 to 15 targets,” Smith said. “That’s just not the way our team works. You just have to be ready for whatever spot you’re in.”
Practicing unselfishness is a quality held well in veterans Smith and Wright. Smith’s former Eagles team won a Super Bowl while spreading the ball around, and Wright has been used in Turner-coached offenses as a third-down target for almost a decade.
Wright is quarterback Cam Newton’s top third-down receiving target. He has caught 10 of 15 third-down targets this season, and nine of the drives during which he converted a third down have resulted in a touchdown.
He’s a prime example of a guy being very productive in his specific role — and staying unselfish, despite limited targets.
“With us, we’re a very unselfish group,” Wright said. “And we know that each guy we have can make plays. We enjoy seeing each other make plays, whether it’s me, whether it’s Curtis, whether it’s DJ, whether it’s Funch. ... Whoever it is, we’re happy to see guys make plays. There’s no jealousy in our room.
“We have a young group, so it’s all about growing together. And not one guy thinking he’s better than the group, or bigger than the group. And we don’t struggle with that here.
“We’ve been growing collectively each and every week.”
Concern over Samuel’s snap counts seems to be only external.
“I don’t really focus on that too much,” he told the Observer. “When my number is called, I always stay ready. My goal is to become a better receiver, better player week by week at practice. Going out there, practicing and proving to the coaches that I’m getting better each week. So when it comes to game time, whatever decision they make as to how many snaps I get, that’s on them.”
Also only external?
Concern over Smith’s eventual return from a knee injury, which has caused many Internet-vocal Panthers fans to worry that his presence could eclipse the already-limited opportunities given to Samuel.
That’s a misconception.
“We have packages where we are (both) on the field and we have packages where I’m not on the field,” Smith told the Observer recently. “To me, honestly, I don’t care. Whatever we have to do to win. At the end of the day, I know when it’s crunch time and the game matters most, I know what I’m capable of and I know what I’ll do. So I’m not really worried about all of that stuff.
“Even if that means me coming back and I have to watch a lot more than I’m used to, whatever we have to do to win. ...
“I’m in a very good place with that and we have a real chance. So I don’t want to be a guy that messes up chemistry.”
As Samuel continues to get into a real rhythm for the first time in his career, coaches continue to indicate that his development will lead to a rise in how often he’s on the field.
“He makes explosive plays, and he’s going to be an outstanding player here,” Turner said.
But in the meantime, fans concerned about Samuel might take some solace in the fact that while his snap count has not increased consistently week over week, his targets have.
Last week against Detroit, Samuel matched a career high when he was targeted seven times. Despite getting just 16 offensive snaps, he caught five passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.
“Whenever my number is called, whenever I’m out there on the field, the coaches put me in a great position to be a dynamic player,” Samuel told the Observer. “When I’m out there in a one-on-one matchup, I’m going to take advantage.
“And I’m going to win.”