Panthers' Curtis Samuel is 'light-years' ahead and gaining speed

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Practice at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, was reaching its conclusion on Friday, and Cam Newton wanted to see Curtis Samuel dance for the fans.

The Carolina Panthers quarterback convinced the disc jockey to play a song with a beat -- Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” was the choice -- and then pulled his third-year receiver toward the middle of the field to show off his moves.

“I just wish they had a better song selection," Samuel said with a laugh a few days later when training camp resumed at Wofford College.

Such as?

“Suge, DaBaby," Samuel said. “All day. You’ve got to put it on."

Samuel has been putting it on since camp began. While most of the focus has been on Newton and his return from shoulder surgery, the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Samuel has been the star.

“He’s had the most growth out of any player I’ve ever seen in terms of as a player, confidence ... everything," said Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith, who at 30 has seen his fair share of growth. “I’m expecting him to have a huge year. He’s worked his way to be in that position."

Like the rapper DaBaby, otherwise known as Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, Samuel has taken a similar geographic path to the big stage. DaBaby was born in Ohio and moved to Charlotte as a kid before becoming a rapper.

Samuel wasn’t born in Ohio -- he’s a native of Brooklyn, New York -- but he played three seasons at Ohio State before the Panthers moved him to Charlotte as a second-round pick in 2017.

DaBaby hit the big time earlier this year, when “Suge" hit No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Samuel hopes to peak in the NFL this season, his third in the league.

Fantasy players take note: All signs are trending toward that.

“He’s special, man," Panthers wide receiver Chris Hogan said. “He’s explosive. He’s quick off the line, has really good hands, runs really good routes. ... He really has primed himself to have a good season."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera says Samuel is “light-years" ahead of where he was as a rookie, when a hamstring injury forced him to miss much of offseason workouts and training camp and a Game 10 broken ankle ended his season. In his second season, an irregular heartbeat forced him to miss the first three games.

“And now he has taken an even bigger leap," Rivera said. “It’s exciting to watch."

Samuel is excited just to be practicing on a daily basis.

“As long as I’m out there, I’m going to make things happen," he said. “The main thing with me is about staying healthy. If I can do that, best believe something is going to happen."

‘Foot speed that's rare’

Panthers strong safety Eric Reid bit on an under route by tight end Greg Olsen, leaving cornerback James Bradberry alone on Samuel on a play in Friday’s FanFest. The receiver didn’t disappoint, using his world-class speed to create 10 yards of separation and hauled in a perfect deep strike from Newton.

“With that great speed, I’m not sure any great corner would have been able to stay up with him," Rivera said.

Samuel was one of the fastest players at the 2017 NFL combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds. While some have told him his offseason training in Miami has made him bigger, that wasn’t the focus.

“This is going to sound funny, but speed," Samuel said. “I’m just trying to get a little more faster. Just balance, being able to correlate to running my routes and come out of my route square and locate the ball."

He gets no argument from running back Christian McCaffrey, who was clocked at 4.48 seconds in the 40 at the 3017 combine.

“He’s got foot speed that’s rare," McCaffrey said of Samuel. “Not just in the league. I’d say in the world. Being able to watch him really use his skills well and learn and develop has been a lot of fun."

What makes Samuel more dangerous than ever is that he’s able to get in and out of his routes faster. Having split time between running back and receiver at Ohio State, he’s finally feeling like a full-time receiver, understanding better how to run the entire route tree and do it efficiently.

“The more I do something over and over, repetition, my body gets used to it, and it becomes natural to me, and I can start adding my own flavor," Samuel said.

“When you first start doing something, you kind of do it robotically. That’s kind of how I felt my first year coming in. My second year, I felt I got better. Now I feel I’m able to incorporate my own things and do what the coaches want me to do."

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner calls Samuel “an outstanding route runner."

“You don’t get better if you’re not out here practicing," he said. “Obviously, he grew as the [2018] season went on, but still it was limited with the number of snaps he could take.

“He’s in great condition. He goes through an entire practice like everyone else. We don’t have to take him out. We don’t have to take care of him, so to speak."

5,000 reps

Rivera believes that a rookie needs 5,000 reps between the day he is drafted and his first game to be prepared to naturally react. Samuel didn’t get that as a rookie or before his second season.

Even while he caught 31 passes for 388 yards and three touchdowns in the final eight games, Samuel's conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be.

“He couldn’t last into the third quarter," Rivera said. “So when a lot of you were screaming, ‘Why don’t you play him more?’ Well, that’s part of it. He’s got to get those snaps so he can build that stamina so he can play an entire 65-minute game.

“That’s how important it is to be out here. If you don’t go through this and get those snaps and numbers of plays, now all of a sudden we’ll be in a game, and you’ll run out of gas in the third quarter."

Samuel’s finally getting his body rhythm down in more than dancing.

“With me, it was just about getting the reps down," he said. “Once I get the reps down, it don’t take me long to pick things up. I feel comfortable. Just being able to go consecutive days and just get the feeling in my body and just get the rhythm and everything so I can make big plays."

Third year's the charm

Samuel’s NFL career thus far has followed the same cycle as his high school and college careers.

“In high school, my first year I got hurt, my second year I played a little bit, my third year I took off," he said. “In college, my first year I got hurt, my second year I got to play a little bit, my third year I took off."

Samuel is ready to take off in 2019 and make long catches similar to the one he had at FanFest.

“I just feel like I’m a great player," Samuel said. “My thing is I’ve just got to go out and show improvement, and I’ll be talked about."

Maybe he’ll even dance.

“Oh, there’s going to be more," Samuel said.