Scott Fowler

Want to be excited about a Panthers player? What you need to know about ‘right now’

Panthers rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel has blazing speed, but he is only 20 years old and says he is working on running faster.
Panthers rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel has blazing speed, but he is only 20 years old and says he is working on running faster.

He is a blur in blue, a rookie wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers whose signature asset becomes apparent in every drill.

Curtis Samuel can flat-out run. He is a high-speed internet connection, a roadrunner in an old cartoon, a tornado dropping down from the clouds. He has caught the attention of NFL veterans who are not easily impressed.

“The dude is fast, man,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said of Samuel. “Really fast.”

“Whew!” said Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who has been tasked with covering Samuel out of the slot formation during the June workouts. Munnerlyn added he might need to “lose a few pounds” to stay with Samuel.

“I definitely showed them I could run a little bit,” Samuel said, grinning, after a workout Monday. “But there’s more to come. I’m not satisfied with how fast I’m running. I want to get faster.”

Samuel, the Panthers’ second-round pick out of Ohio State in 2017, was drafted to help Carolina get more explosive on offense. Like first-round pick Christian McCaffrey – who is also extremely quick, although I’d put my money on Samuel to win a race between the two – Samuel will line up as both a receiver and a running back this season.

Now I know the team hasn’t even put on full pads yet – that doesn’t come until late July – and I know Samuel is raw. But he’s a player Panthers fans should and will get excited about, because speed kills in nearly every sport. Samuel will be a threat every time he walks onto the field.

Ted Ginn Jr. was like that, of course. The two are similar in a number of ways, from their college (Ohio State) to their height (5-11). The Panthers wanted to keep Ginn in the offseason, but he got a better offer in New Orleans and now will play for Carolina’s division rival instead. That’s part of the reason Carolina drafted Samuel and McCaffrey – the Panthers had to first replenish and then increase their team speed.

Ginn has been one of the NFL’s fastest players for a decade now and somehow remains that way, even at age 32. Samuel is only 20 years old, by the way.

So who would win a race between the two?

Apparently, it would depend on the distance of the race.

Said Davis: “I think Ted is more of a ‘build up speed’ guy, and Curtis is a ‘right now’ guy. He’s a guy who can go get it right now.”

I read that quote to Panthers coach Ron Rivera and asked him to respond.

“Yeah, ‘right now’ is a good way to put it,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing you see from Curtis is his acceleration. He gets from zero to top speed pretty doggone quick. He creates his separation in the 15-20 yard area. Whereas Teddy was just: ‘Go.’ But it was a ‘build-up’ go.”

I asked Rivera who would win a 40-yard dash between the two players. “Teddy would win,” he said.

How about a 10-yard race? “I think Curtis would,” Rivera said.

That may be borne out by some numbers. For a player with the acceleration of a sports car, Samuel didn’t have a ton of 50-yard catches at Ohio State.

As a first-team All-American in 2016 and all-everything H-back for Ohio State, Samuel averaged a relatively modest 11.7 yards per catch in 2016 (74 catches for 865 yards).

In Ginn’s three seasons with Carolina, he averaged 15.3 yards per catch – almost 4 yards more per reception, against stronger competition.

But Ginn also never caught more than 54 passes in those seasons, as the Panthers relied on tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on a more regular basis to move the chains. Ginn was the home-run threat.

And Ginn, of course, never carried the ball with the frequency of Samuel – who is close to 20 pounds heavier than Ginn and who rushed for nearly 8 yards per attempt last season in college (97 carries, 771 yards).

Samuel ran an official time of 4.31 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in March – one of the best times there – but he scoffed at that number Monday.

“I can run faster than that,” Samuel said. “Probably somewhere in the 4.2s.”

Can cornerbacks in the NFL keep up with you?

“I don’t know,” Samuel said, before sounding very much like he did know. “I’m confident in myself that I can beat anybody – not only with my speed, but just by trying to be a smarter player.”

That’s what Samuel is working on now. He has a lot to learn, since the Panthers are going to use him both as a slot receiver and occasionally as a running back, too. He also will be a kickoff returner for Carolina (McCaffrey, who will be a running back first and foremost, is tentatively slated to return punts for Carolina).

“Kickoffs,” Samuel said, “are just one cut and go. Then you just run as fast as you can.”

And how fast is that?

Who knows? The Panthers have employed some mighty fast players over the years who were also very good football players. Michael Bates was an Olympic medalist as a track star, Steve Smith was remarkably quick. Samuel will also have a chance to make an impact, but there is much he still has left to do first.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what this young man is able to do when we put on pads,” Davis said of Samuel.

Me too.

Because, as Samuel said: “I haven’t run my fastest yet. And that’s scary.”