RSP contributor J. Moyer explains why Carolina Panthers wide receiver is on his way to becoming an elite perimeter receiver in the NFL.
Follow J. o Twitter at @jmoyerfb
Projecting players from the college game to the pros is difficult. Physical attributes poorly predict performance. Production is heavily influenced by contextual factors such as the strength of opposition, scheme, injury, and teammate effectiveness.
Because of this, misses are accepted and expected. But as players transition to the NFL, there is a logical disconnect. Fans, fantasy players, analysts, and even coaches put such weight on the college evaluation that it continues to affect the view of who a player is, even when there is evidence to the contrary.
Curtis Samuel is a great example. Per an East regional scout for an AFC team quoted in Samuel’s 2017 NFL.com draft profile:
“It’s kind of like Jalin Marshall last year. (Samuel) is not a running back and his routes and hands aren’t that good. Marshall went undrafted. Samuel is a better athlete, but they are about the same size and give you the same concerns with how to use them.”
They see Marshall and Samuel have similar dimensions and occupied the same RB/WR hybrid H-back role in Urban Meyer’s Ohio State offense, and it allowed these surface-level, contextual factors shade their view of Samuel. To them, he fitted into a pattern we’d seen before, captured by the first summary line from Samuel’s same NFL.com profile: “Jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.”
Ignoring the question of whether these types of historical comparisons are valid at all, Urban Meyer’s history can better illuminate the potential of his featured skill players. Meyer is a historically great NCAA coach, who has stated his offensive aim is to get the ball in his best player’s hands as frequently as possible.
Meyer knows how to identify good players. At the time of the 2017 draft, his leading receivers after he had implemented his program and recruited his players are notable:
- Percy Harvin (2007-’08)
- Aaron Hernandez (2009)
- Deonte Thompson (2010)
- Michael Thomas (2014-’15)
- Curtis Samuel (2016).
Harvin, Hernandez, and Thomas all provided elite NFL production when healthy.
Even if you accept Samuel’s scouting report as valid, the known uncertainty of evaluation needs to lead analysts to continuously reassess held views of who a player is. Open-minded reassessment on an NFL field can debunk misconceptions, reveal developmental changes, and enable anticipation of a player’s career trajectory.
Specific to Samuel is his inexperience as a true wide receiver and his college scouting reports lead to easy avenues of targeted inquiry:
How is he developing as a route runner?
How good are his hands?
To the first question, the advanced metrics are promising. Per NFL Next Gen Stats by way of Graham Barfield, Samuel created three-plus yards of separation on 55 percent of his targets over the last two years, good for top-eight in the NFL (if he met the target volume cutoff).
The film backs up this statistic. Samuel is creating separation in difficult situations, rather than benefitting from a lack of defensive attention. To do this, he consistently delivers on the intuitive nuances of elite NFL route-running: attacking unexpected coverages, effective press releases, manipulating leverage of defenders and efficient route breaks.
As for Samuel’s hands, NFL receivers catch on-target balls in space. The true test of NFL-worthy “hands,” or ability at the catch point, is hanging on to the ball under duress. Can the player win sideline catches, hold onto the ball through big hits, play through contact, and snag balls outside his frame?
According to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, Samuel dominated one area of challenging play in 2018, succeeding in 73.7 percent of contested-catch situations. Again, a promising stat that the film emphatically backs up.
Despite these achievements, Samuel’s perception is still in the image of a tweener RB/WR hybrid thrust into an NFL receiver’s role. But start checking the boxes…
Elite athleticism, check…
Nuanced route running and top-tier separation against both man and zone coverage, check…
Tremendous skill in difficult and contested-catch situations, check.
Add it up, and Curtis Samuel is quickly moving towards becoming an elite perimeter NFL wide receiver.
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