Perhaps no player has come from further off the radar to generate a louder fantasy buzz this summer than Carolina Panthers receiver Curtis Samuel. So I checked in with ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton, who insists it’s not just noise.
In fact, Newton said he would actually draft the third-year pro ahead of fellow Panthers receiver DJ Moore.
Newton said that’s no knock on Moore, who is being selected 25th among receivers in average ESPN fantasy drafts, while Samuel is going 41st. Newton said he believes Moore can continue the level of production he showed over the final 10 weeks of his rookie season, when he ranked in the top 20 among NFL receivers, with 42 receptions and 597 yards.
But Newton said both receivers can catch 60-70 passes or more for an offense that let Devin Funchess walk in free agency. And Samuel is the one who has displayed more dynamic big-play ability on a daily basis in training camp, while also developing a clear rapport with QB Cam Newton both on and off the field.
“He’s got foot speed that’s rare. Not just in the league -- I’d say in the world,” Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey said. “Being able to watch him really use his skills well and learn and develop has been a lot of fun.”
Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner has praised Samuel for his improved route-running. And coach Ron Rivera said the 5-foot-11, 195-pounder is “light years” ahead of where he was as a rookie, when he was limited to nine games because of a hamstring injury and a broken ankle after being drafted in the second round out of Ohio State.
Samuel also missed the first three games of last season with an irregular heartbeat before finishing with 39 catches for 494 yards, eight rushes for 84 yards and seven combined touchdowns.
Those numbers might have been better if Cam Newton wasn’t derailed by a shoulder injury that prevented him from throwing the deep ball effectively over the second half of last season. But Newton’s arm has looked much stronger following offseason surgery -- “night and day,” according to former teammate Captain Munnerlyn.
ESPN’s Newton pointed out a couple of factors that could prevent Moore or Samuel from breaking out enough to be a top-20 fantasy receiver (Cam has to stay healthy, and Cam, McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen will get a large share of the red zone opportunities). But he does believe it’s possible for both to be productive at the same time, with the Panthers planning to move Moore, Samuel and McCaffrey around in all three receiver positions.
Now for our weekly tour around the league with ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters:
Arizona Cardinals: Apologies to those on the hunt for the next big thing, but the buzz out of Arizona is Larry Fitzgerald continues to be the No. 1 option at WR ahead of second-year pro Christian Kirk and others. Josh Weinfuss took the “under” on 867 yards for Kirk in this year's fantasy projections for ESPN+, saying, “It's hard to predict who'll have the next-best season after Fitzgerald.”
“I’d always say, yes, take Fitz earlier because of his role in the offense,” Weinfuss said of the future Hall of Famer, who turns 36 later this month but has quickly established a rapport with 22-year-old QB Kyler Murray. “He’s not the shiny new model, but he’s the 150,000-miler who could easily get 100 catches and 1,000 yards.”
In deeper leagues and dynasty leagues, Weinfuss said KeeSean Johnson and Andy Isabella have been the most impressive rookies in Arizona. “Isabella is so stinkin’ fast that he could be a touchdown guy for this team on top of getting chunk plays,” Weinfuss said.
Baltimore Ravens: ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters weighed in on two valuable fantasy posts over this past week -- those “over/unders” I mentioned above and a selection of every team's training camp MVP. Jamison Hensley singled out tight end Mark Andrews in both posts, saying he is “the most dangerous target in the Ravens’ passing game" and that he has developed a strong chemistry with QB Lamar Jackson, especially in the red zone.
Hensley also wrote about how much more command Jackson has developed as “a complete leader” in Year 2. And how the Ravens’ top draft pick, WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, has finally been able to flash his big-play ability in practice as he continues to recover from January foot surgery.
Denver Broncos: Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold predicted the “under” on 540 receiving yards for rookie tight end Noah Fant. But he wrote that Denver needs Fant to be on the “fast track” because of injuries at the position.
Green Bay Packers: Another notable from those fantasy over/unders, Rob Demovsky labeled Geronimo Allison as the No. 3 receiver behind Marquez Valdes-Scantling even though Allison is being drafted three spots earlier among receivers in average ESPN drafts (49 vs. 52). Demovsky said Aaron Rodgers has thrown a lot more balls toward MVS this summer, and he expects Valdes-Scantling to play ahead of Allison in two-receiver sets.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Fantasy owners might be scared off by the injury and maturity issues that have derailed Leonard Fournette so far. But as Mike DiRocco wrote, the Jaguars still have “considerable optimism” after Fournette's strong start to training camp, which includes being a bigger part of the passing game.
“I’m not sure exactly what that means in this case or how long a leash he will have,” Teicher said. “But they believe he is their most complete back and that, down to down, they’re a better team with him in the lineup. Barring any injuries, he’ll get more work than any of the other guys and probably more than the other guys combined.”
However, Teicher cautioned that coach Andy Reid likes to find roles for the backup running backs. And rookie Darwin Thompson, in particular, should have a bigger role than normal for a sixth-round draft pick after his strong preseason performance.
Miami Dolphins: Undrafted receiver Preston Williams has been the talk of camp, wrote Cameron Wolfe. “He's a first-round talent," veteran teammate Kenny Stills said. "He's going to be somebody to deal with in this league for a long time."
New England Patriots: One of New England’s biggest question marks “changed in a Flash” when receiver Josh Gordon was reinstated, wrote Mike Reiss. He said Gordon projects as a “top-of-the-depth-chart option" alongside Julian Edelman. On the flip side, it also bumps promising rookie receivers N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers a notch down in the pecking order.
Washington Redskins: It looks like Case Keenum will begin the year as Washington’s starting QB, as Colt McCoy continues to heal from a broken leg, John Keim wrote. Also, RB Derrius Guice still has not been cleared to play in preseason games -- but he appears to be getting close.