CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel and right tackle Taylor Moton are set for big paydays as unrestricted free agents. In all likelihood, the team won’t be able to re-sign both due to salary-cap restraints.
They could lose both.
But if they put their effort into signing one, which makes the most sense?
Coach Matt Rhule called Samuel a “difference-maker” after the fourth-year receiver/running back posted career highs in rushing (52 yards) and receiving (106 yards) in Sunday’s 20-13 win at Washington. Samuel’s unselfish, tough-guy approach fits the profile of the type of player Rhule wants to build around.
“When your best players are tough-minded, you know, hardworking guys, you have a chance to win," Rhule said. “Every time Curtis makes a play, everyone's excited."
Moton is a player Rhule loves for many of the same reasons. The former Western Michigan standout offers stability on the right side of the line as a run blocker and pass protector. He seldom gives up a sack or quarterback hurry and is durable -- he’s never missed a game due to injury.
“He’s an excellent player," Rhule said. “He’s an excellent professional. He’s an even better person. When we talk about the brand, he’s all of that."
With left tackle a must-get in the offseason with injury-prone Russell Okung likely to be unsigned, it would be a tall order to replace both tackles. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater -- or any QB, for that matter -- is only as good as his pass protection.
Moton likely will ask for a multiyear deal somewhere in the range of $14 million to $15 million per season. The Panthers (5-10), with a projected 2021 salary cap of $176 million, would have only $12,245,770 in cap room, according to Over the Cap.
Then there’s the Christian McCaffrey factor. Injuries that have kept the 2017 first-round pick out for 12 games -- and likely a 13th in Sunday’s finale against New Orleans -- have helped Samuel emerge as a difference-maker.
A healthy McCaffrey in 2021 would mean fewer touches for Samuel, particularly as it pertains to playing running back.
Both are jack-of-all-trade players who can play receiver and running back. But McCaffrey is the ultimate difference-maker, one of three players in NFL history who has recorded 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
Samuel, in beer or soda terms, would be classified as difference-maker lite.
As impressive as Samuel has been at times, rushing 38 times for 197 yards and two touchdowns and catching 70 passes for 733 yards and three touchdowns, he doesn’t dominate games the way McCaffrey can.
The Panthers likely can replace Samuel’s skill set with a lower-priced free agent or a draft pick. Now projected to pick eighth, a stellar receiver is more likely to be available than a quarterback or left tackle.
Replacing Moton would be more difficult.
To Samuel’s credit, and another reason Rhule loves the former Ohio State star, is he’s not focused on the offseason. Samuel's focus on Sunday was doing what he could to help get a win.
When told Rhule called him a difference-maker, Samuel responded humbly.
“Sometimes when things probably are not going right for our offense, sometimes I go out there and make plays, get the team started, get the excitement going, just get everything going," Samuel said. “Like I say all the time, any time I get the opportunity to touch the ball, make the most of it."
Samuel made the most out of his opportunities on Sunday, particularly a crucial 45-yard run in which his juke left a Washington defender grasping air. That and a 44-yard catch later made Samuel one of seven players to have two plays of 40-plus yards (one receiving, one rushing) in the same game since he entered the NFL in 2017.
Samuel will attempt to make the most of his opportunities again Sunday against New Orleans. His skill set would be a good fit for the Saints.
But it won’t be to prove his value to the Panthers or any other team.
“My mindset this year wasn’t about proving anything," Samuel said. “It was just showing what I can do, to myself. Just going out there and playing like I was in college, like I played my whole life -- enjoying the game, having fun, all around the field, making plays for the team to put us in positions to win."