Panthers’ youth movement gaining momentum

Rookies getting more opportunities while Carolina battles for NFC South

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey celebrates with wide receiver Curtis Samuel after scoring a touchdown at Bank of America Stadium. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — If an offensive lineman gets attention during a game, it’s usually something bad has happened, and it’s his fault.

Rookie lineman Taylor Moton wears No. 72. Anyone in attendance at the Panthers’ win over the Falcons last Sunday knows that by now, because officials announced “No. 72” a dozen times during the game.

The newfound attention wasn’t a bad thing, in fact, just the opposite. Moton didn’t get called for any penalties during the game. Instead, he entered for 12 offensive snaps as the sixth lineman — an extra blocker that the team went to instead of a skill-position player in specific situations.

There are strict rules about how that personnel package needs to be handled.

“When I go into the game, I have to find the referee. He’s the one with the white hat,” Moton explained. “I have to do it before we huddle. After that it’s too late.

“I have to rub my jersey with my hands and tell him my number and that I’m eligible,” Moton added while demonstrating with a motion that looked like he might be pulling his shirt over shoulder pads.

The referee then announces over the stadium PA system that Moton is reporting as an eligible receiver.

It’s a quirky rule, one of several in the NFL, but it emphasizes the new direction the Panthers are taking this season.

While a youth movement generally means a team has given up on the season and is looking toward the future, the Panthers are attempting to give their young players a bigger role while contending for the NFC South divisional title.

Moton’s 12 snaps on Sunday were a season high for him. In the last two weeks, he’s been on the field for 23 offensive plays. In the first seven weeks of the season, he saw just eight snaps of action.

“We’re finding chances to use him,” Rivera said of the team’s second-round draft pick.

Moton is one of four rookies who have seen their playing time and roles expanded significantly in recent weeks.

“It’s nice to see those guys get opportunities,” Rivera said. “I thought we brought in some really good players. We drafted really well. To be successful, you’ve got to have that happen. They’re good young men who work hard when they do get the chance.”

First-round pick Christian McCaffrey has gradually worked his way into the team’s offense. After getting snap counts in the 30s and 40s for the first five weeks of the season, McCaffrey has been used on more than 50 offensive plays in three of the last four games. He played 53 on Sunday, tied for second-most of his short career.

Over that time, he’s also seen his special teams usage dwindle. After being on the field for six or seven kicking plays in five different games earlier in the year, he’s had just one special teams snap in the last two weeks.

“C-Mac’s a dynamic player,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “You can feel the vibe around him. He feels as if he’s not doing enough. But when a guy’s touched, and he’s blessed, you’ve just got to give him the ball, step back and be in awe. I’m a proponent of seeing how much he can digest before we ease off of him, because when the ball’s in his hand, man that’s a good thing for us as an offense.”

Second-rounder Curtis Samuel is also seeing his role grow as the team finds ways to take advantage of the wide receiver’s speed on the field. He played 49 snaps on Sunday, after averaging 19 in his first six games.

A month ago, Rivera talked about scaling things back for Samuel, worried he was overwhelmed by getting too much information too fast. This past week, the team traded veteran wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in part to open up more playing time for him.

“He’s getting his opportunity,” Rivera said. “He plays very strong and fast. There’s a lot of energy to the way he does things. He’s exciting to watch. He’s explosive. We’ve got to find ways to get the ball in his hands even more so.

Fullback Alex Armah, promoted from the practice squad after tight end Greg Olson’s injury, had 17 of his 23 career snaps on Sunday, playing both fullback and tight end.

“He’s a young man that gets it, already,” Rivera said. “He beats a lot of us into the office.”

The Panthers’ youth movement seems to be gaining momentum, which means that 72 could be on its way to becoming a household number.

“I’m too busy to hear when they announce my number,” Moton said, “but my family in the stands thinks it’s pretty cool.”