SPARTANBURG, S.C. — They say Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel is a certified breakout candidate in his all-important third season.
They — the watchful observers — may be right.
I was among that group Tuesday as the Panthers hosted the Buffalo Bills for the first of two joint practices at Wofford College. No sooner than I settled in at the media tent did the Carolina crowd, sweltering in the muggy heat, roar with excitement.
The former Ohio State speedster, he of the 4.31 40-yard dash time, put his signature ability on display by dusting Buffalo’s defense in the early portion of team drills, when Cam Newton hit him in stride. Samuel got a step on his overmatched defender and split the Bills’ secondary with comical ease. There was nobody on the field who could’ve caught him.
And nobody for the Panthers who could catch, except for Samuel. The receiver group struggled with drops and bobbles, particularly in the red zone, and particularly on balls from Newton, who was zipping it with noticeable force. When pass attempts weren’t being mishandled, they were sailing wide or high from their intended targets.
The exception was — you guessed it! — Samuel making a tough grab in traffic during the goal-to-go drills.
It was a busy morning for the 2017 second-round draft pick. It was a tiring morning, having to run circles, almost literally, around his competition.
Samuel gave the fans one final treat as he trudged through the grass and up the sidewalk, heading toward the Panthers’ makeshift locker room. While a cart came to whisk him away, Samuel ordered it and another cart carrying a teammate to stop so he could switch.
His handler shrugged. Fans’ eyes were glued, mouths agape. Then, he bellowed within earshot of the Big Apple-based Bills:
“New York transportation! Switched from the train to the bus!”
For as dynamic and reliable as Samuel was, Newton was anything but, struggling with consistency and often being forced to check down during 11-on-11 drills. The three-time Pro Bowl signal-caller rebounded toward the end of practice, however, stringing together completions in a hurry-up simulation.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera took a glass-half-full approach, rationalizing the session as unfamiliar territory for his team. Rivera was also encouraged by how Newton finished, not necessarily how he started.
“Watching the offense, I thought we handled some things pretty good,” he said. “You get anxious, you get a little overhyped, and I thought that was part of our problem early. Once our guys settled in, got a little bit of a routine, we felt a lot better about it. The big thing is, you’re practicing against somebody different, you don’t have a feel for them, you haven’t scouted them. So you’re going to make some mistakes which was good. He made a few that we have to go back and correct, but it was fun. I thought the tempo was good. I thought the competition was good. Exactly what we needed.”
• Panthers center Matt Paradis was vocal on the field barking out protection calls, the true “quarterback” of the offensive line. He was moving around without limitation on his surgically-repaired ankle — the same ankle that precipitated his departure from Denver. Overall, the unit did well to protect Newton, though Buffalo’s pass-rush did register some heat.
• Speaking of Buffalo, the entire squad was energetic and itching to pop pads, a testament to head coach Sean McDermott. They weren’t going through the motions nor cutting corners. Just a clean, physical brand of football.
• It’s obvious that Bills quarterback Josh Allen is night-and-day more comfortable in year two. He displayed a clear command of the huddle without seeming as frenetic as he was as a rookie in 2018. Allen also showed off his rocket right arm, hitting a deep-bomb, drop-in-the-bucket touchdown during 11-on-11 work.
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter @KelbermanNFL