As we continue to inch closer toward the start of the 2021 free agency cycle, which begins at 4 p.m. on March 17, we will take in-depth looks at potential Jaguars targets.
The Jaguars have already undergone a lot of change this offseason, hiring a new head coach in Urban Meyer and a new general manager in Trent Baalke. Now the Jaguars will have to undergo even more change by overhauling the roster. The first step of that will come in March during free agency.
Jacksonville leads the NFL in available cap space, so it can be reasonably assumed they will be big spenders on March 17 and beyond. Until that day, we are going to take a look at top free agents who may or may not fit the Jaguars' rebuild.
Next, we are moving onto our first look at the deep group of skill players set to hit free agency in Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel.
With the Jaguars set to have starting slot receiver Keelan Cole hit free agency, does Samuel make enough sense as a replacement for the Jaguars to pursue him?
One of the big reasons Curtis Samuel's name will likely be connected to the Jaguars is the fact that he was recruited out of high school and coached in college by current Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer. Samuel played for Meyer at Ohio State for three seasons, scoring 24 total touchdowns (15 rushing, nine receiving) and accumulating over 1,000 rushing and receiving yards during his college career.
Following his productive Ohio State career, Samuel was selected by the Panthers with the No. 40 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Samuel was right away positioned to be leaned on as a key weapon for a depleted Panthers offense, though injuries limited him to nine games and 19 touches as a rookie.
Samuel played in 13 games the next season and went from 19 touches for 179 yards and no touchdowns to 47 touches for 578 yards and seven touchdowns, a significant improvement from a lost rookie season. Samuel's numbers steadily increased during his entire four seasons with the Panthers, culminating in his best season as a receiver coming in 2020 with Joe Brady as his offensive coordinator. Samuel has also partly put his past injury concerns to bed, playing in all but one game over the last two seasons.
In 15 games in 2020, Samuel shifted to a new role for the Panthers and set career highs in receptions (77), yards (851), first downs (39), yards per target (8.8), and catch percentage (79.4%), along with three touchdown catches. He also added on 41 carries for 200 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and two touchdowns as a rusher.
What Does Curtis Samuel Do Well?
While Curtis Samuel has earned the label of versatile since his days with the Buckeyes, there is a lot to his game that suggests he may actually be underrated as a pure technical receiver at this point.
His calling card is his athleticism, which shows up at all levels of the field. He has the deep speed to get behind the defense (he registered the 16th-fastest ball carrier speed in 2020 according to Next Gen Stats), but his quickness with and without the ball is electric as well.
He makes explosive and decisive cuts that aid him greatly as a route runner and as a ball-carrier. He is a hard cover in the slot due to his sudden change of direction ability, an element the Jaguars haven't had in there offense much in recent seasons.
He also easily picks up yards after the catch thanks to his seamless transition from receiver to runner, and he has the open-field ability to make defenders miss with jukes and cuts. He is a tough, tough player to tackle in the open field for all of these reasons, but his strength and determination to get every last yard makes him a complete package as a ball-carrier.
Thanks to Samuel's athleticism and natural ability to make plays in space, he is a threat out of the backfield, as a screen target, and as a deep threat. The Panthers even asked him to fill in as a running back at times in 2020, at which point he showed the needed vision and decisiveness to get yards as a rusher.
Samuel doesn't have a complete game, of course, but he has enough tools at his disposal to be a valuable piece of an offense. His size and play style may suggest slot receiver, but he also spent a considerable amount of his Carolina career as an outside receiver, so he could be a movable chess piece in all avenues.
How Curtis Samuel Would Fit With the Jaguars
While Samuel has spent time both outside and in the slot, his best fit with the Jaguars would be as a do-it-all player who does most of his work out of the slot. The Jaguars are missing an element of a home run threat in their offense, and adding Samuel would give them a jolt in terms of overall team speed.
What the Jaguars need the most out of a receiver this offseason is the ability to work out of the slot and provide a reliable weapon for their eventual rookie quarterback. Samuel has good ball skills, toughness, and the adequate route running ability to be that type of receiver.
One can't help but think about how similar his usage is to Laviska Shenault's, which could cause some pause. With that said, their usage may be similar but their games are quite different and the Jaguars wouldn't have to force touches and snaps to one over the other. Shenault has the power and size advantage, while Samuel is more quick-footed. Both thrive with yards after the catch and versatility, but one could make them work off one another like the 49ers flashed with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk last season. Having more players who can win in multiple ways is a positive, not a negative.
Then there is of course the entire Meyer factor. Perhaps Meyer doesn't feel inclined to surround himself with talented players that he knows, but his knowledge of Samuel certainly couldn't hurt. It isn't the main selling point, either, considering his fit within the team's needs and roster construction takes precedent, but it has to be at least noted.
Overall, there is no real reason the Jaguars shouldn't pursue Samuel. His somewhat limited production as a receiver overall (14 touchdowns, 2,087 receiving yards) makes it hard to project what he could fetch on the open market, but the Jaguars don't have many worries when it comes to cap space in the short- or long-term.
Samuel is just the type of investment the Jaguars should explore, too. He is young, explosive, versatile, and has continued to improve with each year of his career. The Jaguars could attempt to find this type of do-it-all spark plug in the draft or elsewhere in free agency, but it is easy to project Samuel in that kind of role because we have seen him find success in it already.
In short, yes, the Jaguars should pursue Samuel. He is a better fit than most receivers in this free agent class because he has inside/outside versatility and would allow the Jaguars to move their receivers around the entire field.
Whether the Jaguars go after him is yet to be determined, but there are enough connections to think that it would make sense for both parties.
For the other free agent breakdowns conducted so far, click below.