“[Samuel] gives this offense more juice,” ESPN analyst (and former Washington safety) Matt Bowen wrote on Twitter shortly after Samuel signed the three-year, $34.5 million deal. “[He can] attack the middle of the field. [He has] run after the catch ability. And Turner can scheme touches for Samuel given his versatile traits.”
The complicated part in projecting his role for the coming season is that Samuel’s positional flexibility has manifested itself in two different ways. For the first three years of his NFL career, former Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Scott’s father, used Samuel outside about 60 percent of the time. In 2020, new Panthers coordinator Joe Brady used him in the slot about 60 percent of the time. The value of Samuel’s versatility is obvious, but Scott Turner now must answer the question of whether he views Samuel as primarily an outside receiver or primarily a slot receiver.
In the past week, two pieces of evidence suggested Samuel will play more outside. Samuel said during his introductory news conference that he was “excited to stretch the field a little bit more” in Washington, and then the team signed slot receiver Adam Humphries. The 27-year-old Humphries isn’t guaranteed to man the slot full time — injuries have forced him to miss 13 games over the past two seasons — but a three-receiver set of Humphries in the slot with Samuel and Terry McLaurin lined up on the outside would seem to be a natural fit.
Samuel said he didn’t care about his position, that he signed with Washington because he wanted to be in an offense “that can utilize my skill set.”
“Not many teams have versatile guys that can run the ball, catch the ball, those kinds of things,” he said. “I just wanted to go into a system where I know somebody can utilize everything I do on the field.”
Regardless of his primary assignment, Samuel will be pivotal to improving a thin receiving corps that, even accounting for instability at quarterback, struggled last season. Washington’s wideouts averaged 1.24 yards per route run and caught eight touchdown passes, the league’s worst and second-worst rates, respectively.
Perhaps the most concerning stat was the lack of explosive plays. Turner’s vertical, Air Coryell-based system relies on chunk plays to move the ball downfield and generate scores, but last season Washington’s receivers only had 63 receptions of 16 or more yards, the league’s third-lowest total, according to Sportradar. McLaurin had 25 explosive plays, nearly 40 percent of the team’s total, and no one else reached half that.
Samuel addresses this problem; he’s a home-run threat with 4.31-second 40-yard dash speed. Last year, his five explosive rushes tied him for first among all receivers and his 28 total explosive plays ranked him seventh, one spot behind Kansas City Chiefs star Tyreek Hill. This means that no matter where Samuel lines up, it’ll take pressure off McLaurin, complement the other receivers — including Humphries, Cam Sims and Steven Sims Jr. — and present a problem to the opposing defense.
“[Our speed] scares a lot of defenses,” Samuel said. “A lot of defenses are going to play back. [We have] a versatile running back [in Antonio Gibson], so there are unlimited things we can do. Terry can carry the ball. I can. There are just so many different things that we can do in that offense.”
Samuel’s success last year adds a twist to the question of whether to play him more out of the slot or on the outside. His move inside last year caused a big drop-off in his average depth of target — from 13.3 yards the previous two years to 7.1 last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — but it paid off. He set career highs in a bevy of categories, including catches (77) and receiving yards (851).
But even though his targets of 20-plus air yards fell from 30 in 2019 to 13 in 2020, according to TruMedia, he still showed last year that he’s more than capable of separating from coverage downfield. He caught nine of those deep targets, including four in the last two weeks, maintaining his reputation as a receiver who can attack defenses vertically.
Beyond the X’s and O’s, Samuel fits into Washington’s long-term plans at receiver. The contract he signed is about market value for a No. 2 wideout, which keeps Washington in position to sign McLaurin, viewed as a core piece of the team’s rebuilding effort, to a big extension before his contract expires following the 2022 season. These small things, such as pairing complementary receivers who could stay together for the next several seasons (it doesn’t hurt that McLaurin and Samuel are friends and former college teammates), are part of the “sustainable winning culture” vision Coach Ron Rivera has emphasized since he was hired.
But this is all, for now, projection. Washington needs to show the tandem can work, unlocking this offense and providing explosive plays. For his part, Samuel appears confident that can happen regardless of where he lines up.
“No matter where you put me, I’m going to go out there and make plays,” he said. “Playing in the slot is a little different from playing outside because you’ve got a little bit more wiggle room, you can be a little bit more patient, [but] it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m excited for this offense and where we’re going to go.”