The New York Jets’ lack of versatility at the WR position makes Curtis Samuel a name to watch on the 2021 free agency market.
One of the positions that Joe Douglas attempted to improve this past offseason was the wide receiver group. Breshad Perriman was brought in to replace Robby Anderson, and Denzel Mims was drafted with the team’s second selection in the NFL draft.
While Mims has shown the potential to be a reliable receiver down the road, Perriman is set to hit free agency. Toss in Jamison Crowder potentially being the victim of a salary cap cut and the future of the position looks fairly murky.
A potential under-the-radar solution on the 2021 free-agent market is Carolina Panthers’ Curtis Samuel, who is entering his prime (turning 25 next August) and is coming off of a 2020 season in which he developed into one of the best all-around offensive weapons in football.
Throughout the first few years of his career, Samuel was used primarily as a deep threat due to his blazing speed (4.31 40-yard dash). In 2020, new offensive coordinator Joe Brady came in and completely changed the way Samuel was deployed, unlocking his full potential. Carolina’s first-year offensive coordinator began to utilize Samuel in an extremely versatile role, and it brought the best out of him.
Samuel played primarily on the outside over his first three years as a Panther, lining up in the slot on only 28.1% of his routes run from 2017-19. This season, Samuel was Carolina’s primary slot weapon, running 71.8% of his routes out of the slot and ranking 14th in the NFL with 316 total routes run out of the slot.
Thriving in his new slot role, Samuel set career-highs in receiving yards per game (56.7), yards per target (8.8), and percentage of targets resulting in a first down or touchdown (40.2%).
In addition to his heavy usage in the slot, another major wrinkle in Samuel’s reimagined role was that he lined up in the backfield on an incredible total of 70 snaps, which represented 10.6% of his offensive plays. He had only lined up in the backfield 17 times throughout his entire NFL career prior to 2020.
Brady made it a point to feature Samuel in the running game, and this proved to be a solid decision as Samuel led all wide receivers with 200 yards on the ground. He did it efficiently, posting a healthy average of 4.9 yards per carry.
Most notably, that rushing production was hardly schemed-up – Samuel earned much of it himself. Samuel’s average of 3.5 yards after contact per carry was better than 72 of the league’s 79 running backs with at least 40 carries, per Pro Football Focus.
Curtis Samuel out of the backfield for six points! 🔥
The Panthers (-1.5) lead 7-3 in the first quarter. pic.twitter.com/4DWUDBj6Ec
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) October 30, 2020
Gonna miss Curtis Samuel when he ultimately leaves the Panthers in free agency. pic.twitter.com/pRXomBaWvq
— Johnny Kinsley (THE BROWNS DID IT) (@Brickwallblitz) December 31, 2020
Samuel is not just a rushing threat out of the backfield. He has also proven to be a pass-catching threat when lined up back there.
Panthers shift and split out McCaffery and put WR Curtis Samuel in the backfield to run a screen for Samuel.
Some fun things you can do with players that are legitimately versatile. pic.twitter.com/n8JMoCujii
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) August 31, 2020
Not only has Samuel been able to produce out of both the slot and the backfield this season, but overall, he’s been one of the league’s most reliable players this year.
Even with subpar quarterback play in 2020, Samuel caught 82.8% of his targets, the best rate among wide receivers with at least 50 targets. Sure, a lot of that comes from Samuel’s high number of underneath targets, but he was extremely reliable as a deep receiver, too. Samuel caught 10 of 13 targets over 20 yards downfield, a rate of 76.9% that also led all qualifiers at the position (10+ deep targets).
Curtis Samuel with the Catch/INTpic.twitter.com/8FIz8VYQad
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 3, 2021
Despite this season being Samuel’s breakout from a box score production standpoint, he has always had a knack for beating coverages since he came into the NFL. He just hadn’t been rewarded by his quarterback and play-caller until now. In 2018, Samuel had some of the best route-running success rates in the NFL.
Curtis Samuel is one of my top potential breakout WRs for 2019 based on #ReceptionPerception:
– 76.6% success rate vs. man coverage (94th percentile)
– 74.6% success rate vs. press coverage
– 73.7% contested catch rate.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) June 6, 2019
One of the biggest issues for the Jets WR group this past season was consistency. Outside of Jamison Crowder, nobody was able to provide production on a reliable basis.
Samuel was very consistent in 2020. He provided at least 39 yards from scrimmage in 14 of his 15 games and at least 50 yards in 11 of his 15 games.
The versatility that Samuel offers can change an entire offense, not just through his own play-making, but also through the attention he demands, which makes his teammates’ jobs easier.
watch curtis samuel stop peterson by slow-playing him which gives robby anderson the advantage he needs to fly by him on the deep crosser pic.twitter.com/J9ngVQNyx5
— rohan (@RohanSanghani4) October 10, 2020
Only 25 years old at the start of the 2021 season, Samuel would be in the heart of his prime, ready to be a core piece of the Jets offense for years to come.
Looking to form a new identity, it would be wise for the Jets to target a young, versatile, reliable and explosive talent like Curtis Samuel in free agency.