Fantasy Impact: Curtis Samuel Signs with Washington (2021 Fantasy Football)
Another free agent wide receiver is off the market, as the Washington Football Team and former Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel have come to terms on a three-year deal worth $34.5 million. The move re-unites Samuel with his former coach, Ron Rivera, as well as his former college teammate, Terry McLaurin.
TRANSITIONING TO THE NFL
When the Panthers selected Samuel in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, there was plenty of excitement in the air for what he could bring to an offense, as he was a swiss-army knife of a weapon in college, rushing for 1,286 yards and 15 touchdowns while piling up 1,249 receiving yards and nine touchdowns through the air in his three years at Ohio State.
Unfortunately, the transition was not so smooth, as Samuel played just 22 games over his first two seasons, totaling just 757 total yards. During that time, he had just 12 rushing attempts, so the team clearly wasn’t using him the way that Ohio State used to. In 2019, he became a focal point of the offense and saw 106 targets, though he was among the most inefficient receivers in football. I write an article every year titled “Which Wide Receivers Were Better/Worse Than Expected.” It basically lets you know the value of each player’s targets. A target on the 50-yard line versus a target on the 10-yard line have different expected values. Based on the number of targets Samuel saw, combined with where they took place on the field, he scored 30.5 fantasy points fewer than expected, which was the sixth-worst mark in football.
This is the point where everyone comes after me and says it was due to poor quarterback play. I’m not going to deny that the play of Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, and Will Grier didn’t affect his results, but D.J. Moore was on the same team with the same quarterbacks, and he scored slightly more than the average player would’ve. The biggest issue was the deep ball, as Samuel caught just 5-of-27 deep targets for 163 yards and no touchdowns. It doesn’t help that he caught just 1-of-9 that were contested.
Everything changed in 2020, though. Samuel saw a decline in targets (106 to 97), but his efficiency shot through the roof. Despite seeing nine fewer targets, he finished with 224 more yards. After totaling just 31 carries through his first three seasons in the NFL, he racked up 41 of them in 2020 alone, and they netted 200 yards and two touchdowns. Based on his receiving numbers alone (and where the targets took place), Samuel scored slightly more fantasy points than the average receiver would’ve in 2020.
WHAT CHANGED IN 2020?
What was the change that happened from 2019 to 2020? The quarterback position was upgraded with Teddy Bridgewater, but if you look at the overall numbers, there’s not too big of a change.
Bridgewater was clearly more efficient, which helps, but again, Samuel’s jump in 2020 was more than just efficient… he was a different player.
The change was his coaching staff. Stop blaming quarterbacks for his inefficiency and start blaming the coaches who didn’t utilize his strengths. I can illustrate that for you.
|Slot %||Cushion||Separation||Air Yds/Tgt||YAC|
|Samuel in 2020||71.8||6.8||3.5||7.1||4.6|
|Samuel in 2019||28.1||5.8||2.6||14.5||2.9|
Those are systematically two different players you’re looking at. One of them was being used more on the perimeter than in the slot. One of them was gaining a lot more separation. One of them was getting double the air yards per target. And one of them was creating after the catch.
When people asked me, “Where do you want Samuel to go in free agency?” My answer was simple: Back to Carolina. The coaching staff under Matt Rhule understood how to utilize Samuel to his strengths and get the most out of him as a player.
THE REAL PROBLEM
Remember all that talk we had about Samuel starting out his career slow and being hyper-inefficient in 2019? Well, he’s going back to the coach and coordinator that used him incorrectly. That’s right, Scott Turner is his offensive coordinator in Washington, the same one he had in Carolina during the 2019 season.
What we have to hope is that Turner understands where he went wrong and watches what Rhule and his staff did right. The problem is that they may try to put Samuel back on the perimeter as they did in 2019 because outside of Terry McLaurin, the Football Team really doesn’t have another clear-cut starter on the perimeter. In Carolina, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson made it possible for Samuel to play 72 percent of his snaps in the slot.
The good news is that Turner has been an offensive coordinator for two years now, and despite having quarterbacks Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, Will Grier, Dwayne Haskins, Alex Smith, and Taylor Heinicke, he’s thrown the ball 614.5 times per season. That’s going to allow for some big target totals (as Samuel had in 2019). On top of that, the Football Team signed Ryan Fitzpatrick earlier this week, and he’ll be the best quarterback Turner has had to work with. Fitzpatrick has also supported fantasy receivers everywhere he goes.
EARLY 2021 PREDICTIONS
This signing isn’t all sunshine and rainbows from a fantasy perspective. If you like Samuel, it requires some trust in Scott Turner, hoping he’ll learn from his mistakes in 2019. Again, we all know that the quarterback play wasn’t ideal, but he was using Samuel fundamentally incorrectly. Fortunately, there’s a whole year of tape of him playing extremely well in the NFL just last year. Hopefully, Turner can steal some of those concepts. It’s possible that Washington isn’t done adding to the wide receiver corps, and to be honest, it would be the best thing for Samuel if they added another perimeter presence. But for now, it seems likely they’d line him up out wide, mixing him into the slot at times. As for Fitzpatrick, he’s completed 52-of-117 passes for 1,715 yards, 16 touchdowns, and six interceptions on the deep ball over the last three years, which is much better than the 16-of-64 passing for 532 yards, one touchdown, and seven interceptions that Samuel’s quarterbacks had in 2019 under Turner. Samuel is not someone I’d suggest snagging as an every-week starter for your fantasy team just because of the uncertainty, though if you can get him as your WR4 who might wind up as an every-week starter, that’s the best-case scenario.
Way-Too-Early 2021 Projection: 98 targets, 62 receptions, 837 yards, 4 touchdowns, 24 rush attempts, 122 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown