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Curtis Samuel emerging as pivotal playmaker after injury-ravaged debut season in Washington

Having already piled up 3,090 receiving yards over his first three NFL seasons, Terry McLaurin has established himself as one of the best young receivers in the league. But five games into the 2022 campaign, he isn't the most-targeted wideout on the Washington Commanders. That'd be Curtis Samuel, who leads the team with 45 targets.

"There are plays that are specific to him that we do have because of his skill set," Commanders head coach Ron Rivera recently said. "A lot of that targeting or the decision-making falls on the quarterback as he goes through his reads and his progressions. He is one of the guys that [has] more plays in the game plans for him specifically than other guys."

That skill set Rivera is referring to is Samuel's ability to scoot with the ball like a running back and be shifty in space like a slot receiver. Samuel has 32 receptions for 281 yards and two touchdowns this season, while also racking up 51 yards and three first downs on the ground.

"I feel like any time I touch the ball, something big could happen," Samuel said on Tuesday, in advance of the Commanders' Thursday Night Football showdown with the Bears in Chicago. "Whether it's a 2-yard route, a 10-yard route, 20-yard route -- no matter where I touch the ball, I feel like I can always do a little bit extra and get a couple of extra yards and make some small play into a big play."

Rivera certainly enjoys Samuel's all-around playmaking ability.

"It can create matchup problems," Rivera said. "If you come in and you shift him around, and all of a sudden, you see a linebacker walk out on him or a safety, we should be licking our chops as an offense, being like, OK, I know where we need to get the ball."

Samuel's versatility is something Rivera first came to appreciate in Carolina, when his Panthers took the Ohio State product in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. The coach and playmaker spent three years together in Charlotte, with Samuel's role increasing each season. So naturally, when Samuel hit free agency in 2021, Rivera's new team in Washington took interest.

"We've always had a feel for what his potential is, mostly because we saw it," Rivera said. "We saw it on the field. We saw it when we coached against him a couple of years ago. (Samuel had 12 touches for 158 yards in Carolina's 20-13 win at Washington in December of 2020.) That's the guy that we wanted to bring here."

Washington did just that, signing Samuel to a three-year $34.5 million contract in March of 2021. But Samuel's debut season in burgundy and gold was ravaged by injury. A nagging groin ailment, which was first suffered in OTAs, ultimately limited the receiver to just five games in 2021. He finished the year with six catches for 27 yards and four rushes for 11 yards. To really put those meager numbers in perspective, Samuel had arrived in Washington having just accumulated 1,051 total yards (851 receiving, 200 rushing) in his breakout 2020 campaign with the Panthers.

"I didn't really understand it," Samuel said of the troublesome groin. "I didn't think it was gonna last as long as it did. All last year, I was basically trying to push myself out there and force myself out there to play and I probably wasn't ready to go yet, which is frustrating, mentally draining.

"At one minute, I felt like I was feeling good, and the next minute ... Oh, boy -- back to where we were before. It was super frustrating. Coming to a new team, you want to make an impact, so you don't want to be hurt and not be out there."

In his debut season with a new franchise and fanbase, Samuel was dying to show everyone what he was capable of doing and why the team brought him to Washington.

"I didn't want to feel like I was letting down my teammates," he said. "I was trying to do any and everything to get myself prepared to play, but unfortunately, it didn't work out."

Once training camp rolled around this past summer, Rivera said he felt Samuel was struggling a bit. The coach worked with Al Bellamy, Washington's head athletic trainer, to come up with what they called "a ramp-up plan."

"We were going to start with him from the very, very basics, just preparation to play," Rivera said. "We wiped everything else out and said, 'This is how we're going to do it.'

"Each day, you could see him regaining his confidence and focus in himself as a football player and it took off. We got ahead of schedule, so we slowed him down a little bit. He played in the preseason, and he was ready for the regular season."

Samuel, who has at least six catches in four of Washington's five games this season, once again feels like himself.

"It's a big difference," the wideout said. "Any time I touch the ball, even at practice, I'll make a move and I just do something. It probably sparks people's attention because last year I wasn't able to do it. And now they see me doing this ... OK, I know he's feeling good. I know he's healthy."

None of this surprises Rivera, who always knew he had a unique weapon in the No. 10 jersey. It was just about getting Samuel out on the field -- and routinely feeding the multifaceted playmaker.

"At one point, we were getting crushed for it," Rivera said. "It's kind of human nature: You spend all this money and then he's not playing. Well, yeah, it happens sometimes. Seeing what he can do and how he can do it has been really positive for us and for our fanbase.

"If we can get the ball in his hands between seven and 10 times a game, he has a chance to make a lot of plays. If we go above 10, that's a bonus."

Follow Bridget Condon on Twitter.

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