They knew he was versatile, having switched him from running back to receiver. Just in case, Samuel reminded them what he could do in a December 20-13 win for the Carolina Panthers, burning the Washington defense from multiple spots. It served as a model for what Washington hopes to see from Samuel every game this season.
In that game, Samuel ran the ball seven times for 52 yards, including a 45-yard run. He caught four passes out of the slot for 84 yards and another out of the backfield for 22 more. Samuel finished with 158 total yards.
That versatility explains why Washington signed him in NFL free agency.
“When the ball is in his hands, the production is tremendous,” said Washington coach Ron Rivera, who was Carolina’s coach when the Panthers drafted Samuel in 2017. “The thing we got to do is make sure we have him on the field and make sure that he gets the opportunity to touch the ball. The analytics show that this is a guy that has to be a big part of your offense.”
Not that Samuel is focused on what the analytics show. He goes by actions.
“I’m pretty sure if I’m getting the ball the analytics are saying something,” Samuel said. “I just have to keep making things happen.”
Washington wanted to add speed this offseason, which Samuel provides. Rivera’s staff also wanted someone who could do a little of everything. Washington plans to use him in the slot, outside and in the backfield. Under coach Matt Rhule in 2020, Carolina expanded on Samuel’s role, whether due to his own growth, a new staff or the loss of running back Christian McCaffrey to injury. The bottom line: Samuel was used all over. However, Rhule’s staff liked using him more out of the slot and at running back compared to his usage under Rivera.
After catching 11 passes out of the slot on 25 targets in 2019 under Rivera, Samuel had 45 catches on 56 such targets this past season. When aligned wide, Samuel caught 41 passes (four were touchdowns) in 2019 compared to 14 and two this past season. From the backfield, he caught one pass in 2019; he grabbed eight last season. And, finally, after he carried the ball 19 times for 130 yards in 2019, those numbers jumped to 41 runs for 200 yards.
“Curtis has been, and is, an ascending player,” Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “They handed him the ball a little more and that’s something he can do, not just be a wide receiver, but be used as a running back. He can play all over the field, whether it’s outside, inside, in the backfield, in motion. Those are going to be the things he does … which is everything.”
But Turner also knows what he would like to see more of in 2021. In 2019, Turner’s most recent season coaching Samuel, he was targeted 27 times on throws of 20 air yards or more compared to 12 last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. However, Samuel caught four such passes two years ago and nine in 2020.
“Where he can grow in his game is … down the field he can make a lot of plays,” Turner said. “He’ll make a lot of plays outside as well.”
That, in turn, would help his former Ohio State roommate, wide receiver Terry McLaurin. Washington likes that both can run routes inside or outside. Samuel can also be used on jet sweeps, whether just going in motion or getting the ball.
Rivera said the coaches hope this versatility can confuse defenses, or at least make it harder to decipher what might happen based on personnel. Rivera said if Samuel aligned only outside, a defense could more easily account for him. But, in the slot, there’s more to worry about.
“Is the nickel [cornerback] capable of covering more if he’s in the slot or is that a linebacker over him,” Rivera said, anticipating what a defense will be thinking. “Now he motions across the formations. Now we have to be ready for a jet sweep or be ready for some sort of pulling, trap, or helping inside because Curtis has the ability to run inside as well. There are a lot of variables that come into trying to scout a multipositional player like Curtis Samuel.”
Rivera’s staff converted Samuel from a running back in college to a wide receiver in 2017. His receptions have increased every season — from 15 as a rookie to 77 a year ago. Samuel said he has matured as a player; others have noticed. Washington quarterback Kyle Allen, a teammate of Samuel’s for two years in Carolina, said he’s a more polished receiver.
“Our first year [together], he was more of a gadget guy,” Allen said. “[Now] he’s more confident in route running and more confident catching the ball.”
And he’s not worried about how many touches he gets or where they come from.
“My mindset is every time I touch the ball, make things happen for the team,” Samuel said. “The more plays you make, the more chances the coach will give you the ball.”