A few days ago a great article written by Diante Lee (do yourself a favor and follow this man on Twitter) appeared on my Twitter timeline. The long and short of the piece is that football should be composed of a quarterback, five offensive lineman, four pass rushers, two linebackers, and everything else is open to movement. This leaves defensive backs and ball carriers open to interpretation based on the kinds of scheme you want to deploy. The labels everywhere else wouldn’t matter. While reading this, I was finishing up watching film on Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel, and realized it is more applicable than I imagined.
Some may’ve been surprised to see Samuel bolt a 4.31 40-yard dash time at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, but the folks in Columbus probably weren’t. Ever since his true freshman year, Samuel was too great of a weapon to keep on the bench, and it was the balance of his usage that made him so enticing for the Ohio State offense—and dangerous for opposing defense. In 40 games at OSU, he totaled 1,286 yards rushing (172 attempts), 1,249 yards receiving (187 receptions), 9 touchdown receptions and 15 rushing touchdowns.
Despite testing and being listed as a wide receiver at the Combine, the Bengals sent running backs coach Kyle Caskey with Marvin Lewis up to Ohio State’s pro day to run Samuel through running back drills. And plays like this make the idea of Samuel as a full time running back seem reasonable:
I don’t know for sure if the Bengals view Samuel exclusively as a running back, but it’d be a crime if they did.
The success of a running back is similar to a defensive tackle. A running back is only as good at reading his gaps and he is at understanding the blocking scheme in front of him. A defensive tackle is only as good as he is at maintaining gap discipline and understanding the blocking scheme transpiring in front of him. I don’t think Samuel is mentally ready to take 10-15 handoffs a game, as he showed an inconsistent ability to make the right reads and attack the proper gaps. But even if he could, you’d lock yourself into getting half of what Samuel has the potential to do. I view Samuel as a receiver first, and that’s how I scouted him.
This may seem like a lazy comparison, but Samuel’s tape as a receiver reminds me of how we all saw Braxton Miller look at the position. When Miller performed during the 2016 Senior Bowl, many were engulfed by his cutting ability and overall foot quickness, despite the rawness in Miller’s general route running. I got a similar vibe watching Samuel break in and out of his cuts:
It didn’t take long for me to find Samuel’s defining play as a slot receiver. In the first play, Samuel combines a hop step mid-route and basically zig zags against the slot defender in a blink. This kind of separation isn’t uncommon to see against the likes of Bowling Green, but you can see how much space Samuel can create without being too deceptive. His 4.31 second 40-yard dash speed is on full display when he has the ball in his hands.
The second play is a great example of the burst Samuel has in his reserves at all times. After basically coming to a complete stop, Samuel launches off the top of the stem and leaves the defender in the dust.
Having Samuel as your slot receiver in 11 personnel already puts you at an advantage against the vast majority of NFL defenses, essentially all the teams without a cornerback who can play in the slot at a high level. The above play shows what happens if a corner tries to play off him and forgets that he has hands that he can use to feel the route. If Samuel gets a free release and isn’t prohibited throughout his routes, his suddenness is just too much to react to. And that makes his ability to chop up zone coverages like this one all the more effective.
Samuel wasn’t targeted here, but you can see how effortlessly he can launch the vertical post or corner route against off coverage. He’s dangerous, but that rare movement ability comes with current limitations as well.
Samuel has more than enough deep speed to stack and separate from corners. But, he’s yet to prove he can be a deep threat. For starters, he can’t track, at all.
This play had everything going for it. Aligning him as a running back in the gun, motioning him out to the slot, forcing the linebacker playing force player to account for him, and just tell him to run straight. The throw is not too long, Samuel just fails to adjust his speed and get under it, eventually not finishing the route and falling short of the throw. Every time I saw Samuel targeted on a go route, this was the result. Unless the throw is perfect, Samuel is unable to adjust his speed or adjust his route to haul in the pass.
Here’s another throw that may’ve looked inaccurate, but under further review, is more on the receiver than the quarterback. Samuel is met with a linebacker at the top of this dig route, but still has inside leverage, which gives his quarterback the go-ahead to give him a chance at the ball. This is the tight coverage you’d like to see slot receivers handle well against, and Samuel does a no-no. Instead of finishing the route and breaking towards the middle of the field, he settles as if he ran a curl route and is unable to haul in the quarterback’s throw. You can pretty much always put these miscues on the receiver, as the quarterback is trying to throw the receiver open, and Samuel basically leaves his pass up for grabs.
Samuel’s most noticeable limitation is obviously his height and frame. I wouldn’t consider Samuel a natural hands catcher, and I definitely wouldn’t say he has a large catch radius, as seen here. Unless Samuel timed this jump perfectly, it was only going to go off his finger tips. Let it forever be known that just because player X has a high vertical, doesn’t mean player X is a jump ball receiver. Samuel just isn’t that type of player.
But enough with the negatives. What we’re really looking at is Percy Harvin 2.0, and that’s exciting.
Get the man a path to the corner or the ball in the open flats and watch him work. It’s as simple as that. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer saw first hand what his offense could do with a guy like Percy Harvin when he coached him at Florida, and once Ezekiel Elliott left for the NFL, it was time for Samuel to be front and center and to be fully unleashed in that role.
When I graded him as solely a receiver, he graded out as a third rounder. And if that’s what you’re drafting him as, I stand by that grade. If you want him as solely a running back, I’d advise to wait even longer. But any team who calls his name shouldn’t restrict him with labels. We saw the Packers use a wide receiver at running back and feature him there down the stretch (Ty Montgomery). Tavon Austin is the highest paid offensive player on the Rams’ roster because the NFL is now a league where (circling back to the beginning) Lee’s philosophy can become practical. Samuel has a place in the NFL somewhere, it’s just a matter of fit.
To maximize Samuel’s skill set, his touches should be as a pass catcher entirely out of the slot and out of the backfield. You can motion him in and out of those two spots, dedicate a whole set of plays like sweeps, options, shovel passes and bubble screens. Just get him the ball as quickly as possible.
The Bengals offense may not be the place where Samuel’s full potential can be realized, but the idea of adding a weapon of his caliber and athleticism on day two of the draft is riveting to say the least.