CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Curtis Samuel immediately dropped to the ground after his 17-yard touchdown catch against Detroit on Sunday and pretended to play the video game “Call of Duty" with quick hand movement.
At least, that’s what the Carolina Panthers wide receiver hoped everyone would see. He just as easily could have been mistaken for sitting on a dock and reeling in a big fish.
“I guess I’ve got to do a better job on my celebrations," Samuel said with a laugh.
Touchdown celebrations aside, Samuel has gotten so much better at everything else that he’s setting himself up for a big payday in the offseason.
Between his age (24), his versatile skill set and production, he’ll likely be in line to get a lucrative deal along with Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kansas City’s Sammy Watkins, Detroit’s Kenny Golladay and Houston’s Will Fuller when free agency begins next spring.
The difference is most of his competition will negotiate a new deal as true No. 1 receiver. Samuel is more of a solid No. 2 or 3 receiver who can play multiple positions, as he did well enough at Ohio State to become Carolina’s second-round pick in 2017.
“If I'm running a pro personnel department, you're not going to sign him to play a DeAndre Hopkins or a Davante Adams role," said ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety. “You're going to sign him to be a versatile piece in your offensive scheme."
The arrival this season of offensive coordinator Joe Brady and his scheme, which focuses on getting the ball into the hands of playmakers in space, has led to Samuel’s emergence.
He’s being used more like he was at college, where he morphed into a multifaceted threat because there wasn’t room for him to play in a backfield with Ezekiel Elliott during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Brady is using Samuel as more than deep threat who occasionally can beat you with a jet sweep.
Tony Alford, Ohio State’s running backs coach and offensive assistant head coach, sees a lot of similarities in the way Brady uses Samuel compared to what he did with him.
“Does it shock me he’s having success?" Alford said. “No, because what a dynamic football player [Samuel] is."
In Brady’s scheme, Samuel’s yards per catch (9.1) is among the lowest in the NFL among receivers with at least 40 targets. It’s a significant drop-off from when he averaged 12.7 yards per catch in 2018 and 11.6 last year.
A bigger drop-off is his air yards per target, down to 6.1 from 14.3 from 2017-19, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But in terms of production and efficiency, Samuel is well ahead of where he’s been. He has 49 catches, five below last year’s career-high, with five games remaining. His catch rate of 84.4 is among the best in the NFL and well ahead of the 55 percent career rate he had coming into this season.
That adds up to what should be a big offseason for Samuel.
Still, he’s not viewed in the same category as other receivers. Watkins, for example, has an estimated 2021 market value of $9.76 million a year, according to Spotrac. Samuel’s value is estimated at $6.5 million.
“Finding a right fit with a coach and offensive coordinator that will utilize him for what he provides is a very important in the process," Bowen said of Samuel.
“You never want to see a player, even if he gets paid, where the usage isn’t right. We see too often where players don’t reach their ceiling because of poor opportunity and poor scheme sets."
Returning to Carolina would be the natural fit. Samuel also would be a natural in the schemes with the Chiefs, Colts, Saints and Rams.
“He has what I call ball-carrier traits," Bowen said. “Most of our receivers don’t. That’s what makes him unique and that’s what makes him so versatile."
Sunday’s touchdown that helped Carolina (4-7) beat Detroit 20-0 and end a five-game losing skid was a good example. While Samuel often lines up in the slot, on that play he lined up wide right, slanted inside and then cut outside.
A solid move and his elite 4.31 40-speed created separation with the defender that made the throw easy for quarterback P.J. Walker, who was making his first NFL start for the injured Teddy Bridgewater (knee).
But Samuel has been just as adept at running between the tackles, sometimes looking as powerful as Elliott with the way he lowers his shoulders and runs through defenders.
That’s helped with the Panthers missing star back Christian McCaffrey for eight games due to injuries.
“He’s in that Christian McCaffrey mold of a player," Alford said. “He’s maybe not that dynamic and explosive as McCaffrey and [Alvin] Kamara, but he’s in that same mold of a player."
Carolina coach Matt Rhule says Samuel is “one of my favorite guys. Because when you need a play, he makes a play." He likes him because he does the “dirty jobs" and “odd jobs" that others can’t.
“Just a mentality," Rhule said. “He doesn’t say very much. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t make excuses. He just has a tough mindset. He does whatever needs to be done."
Samuel also can dance as well as anybody on the team. Just ask him.
That he’s being used in so many ways is presenting more opportunities to show his moves and let his personality come out. It couldn’t have come at a better time with his next contract coming up.
“None of my moves are planned; they just happen naturally," Samuel said. “Whatever my body does, that’s what it does."