On Sunday, three of Carolina’s rookie draft picks who had struggled to get on the field with consistency saw a career-high in snaps during the Atlanta Falcons game: Receiver and second-round pick Curtis Samuel, tackle/guard and second-round pick Taylor Moton and fullback/tight end and sixth-round pick Alex Armah.
Samuel played 49 offensive snaps (75 percent of the total), and had three catches on five targets for 23 yards. He also had a carry for 14 yards off a slick end-around play, during which quarterback Cam Newton faked a screen pass to running back Christian McCaffrey while handing off with his left hand to Samuel.
Lauded by head coach Ron Rivera on Monday afternoon was Samuel’s downfield blocking and run blocking (he at one point laid a block for receiver Devin Funchess that allowed the latter to grab a few extra yards on a catch).
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“We’re happy with the way he’s progressing,” said offensive coordinator Mike Shula. “He’s explosive, he’s physical, he did a great job in the running game. I know receivers, you want to hear about stats and all of that, but the way that our receivers block in helping the offensive line and our tight ends is one of the reasons we had a better day rushing.
“When he gets the ball, if you watch him, he’s usually making the first guy miss. So we need to continue to stay in that direction and get him some more touches.”
Samuel had a great 12-yard catch on a corner route out of the slot that converted a first down for Carolina early in the second quarter that Shula was quick to point out.
The speedy receiver also had an opportunity late in Sunday’s game to make what felt at the time to be one of its most crucial plays. Carolina, up 20-17, had the ball on its own 27-yard line, on third and 9 with 2:36 to play. Samuel ran that same corner route (on the opposite side), but appeared to be held by corner Robert Alford (it was not called), and the ball skipped just outside his reach.
Samuel took the most snaps of any receiver, including No. 1 receiver Devin Funchess. It was expected that both Samuel and receiver Russell Shepard’s playing time would increase without the presence of former top receiver Kelvin Benjamin (Shepard had a season-high 38 offensive snaps).
Moton’s 12 offensive snaps came as Carolina used its “Jumbo” package, in which an extra tackle is stacked on the line and can report as an eligible receiver.
Moton has not been used much in his traditional line positions – he plays both right guard and right tackle, and is learning left tackle. Carolina continues to rely on starters Daryl Williams and Andrew Norwell at tackle and guard, and both have stayed healthy to allow Moton to continue to develop.
But as the Panthers have tried to breathe some life into a run game that was stagnant until Sunday’s game against the Falcons, they have leaned a little more on their “Jumbo” package.
Armah’s increase in offensive snaps on Sunday – he had 17 – was partially due to necessity.
While coaches have liked his improvement in the fullback role as a lead blocker, he has been eased into tight end snaps. But backup tight end Chris Manhertz had to exit the game in the first half with a concussion, so Armah took over for some of those plays.
“Either way we were going to try to get Alex some more snaps,” said Shula. “And then Chris got hurt so we actually got Alex a few more.
“We like what we see with him.”
Shula added that on a few of the plays Armah was tasked with in Manhertz’s place, Armah did not have any repetitions of in practice. Since the team has been training him as both a tight end and fullback, Shula said he wants to avoid putting too much on the rookie too early.
But according to Rivera, that hasn’t stopped Armah from trying to learn it all at once.
“I’ll tell you this about Alex, too, you talk about a young man that gets it already, he does,” said Rivera. “He’s usually here, beats a lot of us into the office. And it’s kind of refreshing when you walk in and the guy is already in the meeting room waiting for the coach to show up. That’s a good thing.”