Curtis Samuel's recovery could play a role in how Panthers draft

A serious ankle injury limited Curtis Samuel to just nine games in his 2017 rookie season. Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wide receiver Curtis Samuel recently was cleared to run -- at least in straight lines -- which is good news for the Carolina Panthers.

But there’s still uncertainty as to when Samuel will be cleared for full football activity.

And that has to affect Carolina’s approach to the April 26-28 NFL draft on many levels.

A fully recovered Samuel would lessen the need for a dynamic receiver. The Panthers took the Ohio State running back/receiver in the second round last year to fill the role as a slot receiver. He never got the chance.

A nagging hamstring injury kept him out of most of the offseason workouts and training camp. A serious ankle injury -- ligament damage and a broken bone -- in a Monday night game against Miami required major surgery and ended his season after only nine games and 15 catches.

Samuel was just emerging against the Dolphins, catching five passes on seven targets for 45 yards.

Coach Ron Rivera said last week at the NFL owners meeting there was no timetable for when Samuel, 21, would be ready, although the hope is for training camp.

Still, he’s an unknown.

So at some point the Panthers should draft another wide receiver -- even though they traded cornerback Daryl Worley to Philadelphia for wide receiver Torrey Smith and signed Jarius Wright in free agency.

This isn't as urgent as it was a month ago because of those developments. Most of the so-called draft experts have backed off -- and rightfully so -- predictions that Carolina will use the No. 24 overall pick on a receiver.

A defensive back, defensive end or even guard/center is a more urgent need there.

That doesn’t mean the Panthers wouldn’t pull the trigger on the best receiver (Alabama’s Calvin Ridley) or even tight end (South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst) if available. Either would give quarterback Cam Newton a much-needed weapon.

Hurst would offer security if Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen suffered another injury, as he did last season.

There’s nobody on the roster to replace Olsen as Ed Dickson did adequately in 2017 before signing with Seattle this offseason. Chris Manhertz, a developmental-type player, has three catches in three seasons. He’s more of a blocker than a receiver.

So at some point the Panthers will take a tight end, too.

A healthy Samuel would give the Panthers more freedom during the first two days of the draft to fill needs other than receiver. He’s as close to a big-time threat as Carolina has after Smith, Wright and Devin Funchess.

Samuel also could help the running-back depth and lessen the need for Carolina to go that route on the draft's first or second day. It’s a given that Christian McCaffrey, last year’s first-round pick, is the featured back. The Panthers are hoping Cameron Artis-Payne can step up as the power back, but nothing’s guaranteed there.

Samuel is similar to McCaffrey in that he played running back and receiver at Ohio State. He rushed for 771 yards on 97 carries and caught 74 passes for 865 yards in 2016.

He could be new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s Darren Sproles while McCaffrey plays the role of LaDainian Tomlinson, as was the case when Turner was the coach at San Diego.

While all signs point toward a positive recovery for Samuels, there’s enough uncertainty to make his health a factor on many levels in the draft.