Panthers need more of DJ Moore to reach potential on offense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It could have been a disaster for the Carolina Panthers and a devastating blow to the confidence of first-round draft pick DJ Moore.

It was third-and-1 from the Baltimore 45-yard line late in the second quarter of Sunday's 36-21 victory against the Ravens. Moore had moved from his receiver spot on the left side to a few yards behind Cam Newton in the shotgun with running back Christian McCaffrey to the right of the quarterback.

Newton faked the handoff to McCaffrey, and then pitched right to Moore.


Yep, here we go again.

The start of this play was a reminder Moore had two costly fumbles two weeks earlier in a loss at Washington.

But instead of falling on the fumble for a huge loss that would have forced a punt and forced the defense to protect a seven-point lead, the ball bounced perfectly back into the hands of Moore, who used his elite speed for a 28-yard gain.

The Panthers went right back to the former Maryland star for an 11-yard gain on an end-around that set up McCaffrey's 6-yard touchdown catch of a tipped pass intended for Devin Funchess.

Call in Moore's coming-out party.

"It has to be," said veteran wide receiver Torrey Smith, whose knee injury suffered a week earlier opened the door for Moore to take on a larger role. "When you're young, a major key is when you gain that confidence that 'I can make plays.'

"When you make plays against the best defense in the league, you can continue to grow from that."

Moore learned from his fumbles against Washington, which came in large part because he was trying to fight for extra yards, as was his reputation in college.

He didn't lose confidence, and his teammates didn't lose confidence in him.

"Throughout the week, I trusted everybody believed in me," Moore said of preparing for a bigger role this week.

They believe in him more now. He finished with a career-high 90 yards receiving on five catches, topping his four catches for 59 yards against Washington. He had two rushes for 39 yards, besting his one rush for 18 yards in two different games.

All in the first half.

"DJ is such an exceptional talent and dynamic player with the ball in his hands," Newton said. "We have to find ways to get the ball in his hands."

Moore showed he has the potential to be the No. 1 receiver the Panthers haven't truly had since Steve Smith wasn't re-signed after the 2013 season. Kelvin Benjamin tried, but the 2014 first-round pick was more of a possession receiver who could beat you only with his size.

Funchess has shown glimpses of filling that role, but he hasn't been able to do it on a consistent basis.

In Moore, the Panthers have a receiver who can beat you in so many ways, the defense has to pay extra attention to him. That showed in the second half as Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen found himself wide open in the seam a couple of times for big pickups.

Throw in McCaffrey and slot receiver Curtis Samuel and, as Olsen said, "we're pretty dynamic with our ability to run the ball out of a lot of situations."

How that will change when Smith returns, possibly this week against Seattle, remains to be seen. But it's clear the Panthers have to look for more ways to get Moore on the field.

Same for Samuel, who is also multidimensional.

"There are so many different things that we can do with those two young men," coach Ron Rivera said. "These two young players need to be on the field. That's how they develop, and we are going to develop as a football team with those kind of players."

Samuel perhaps summed up best what it means to have three young talents -- him, Moore and McCaffrey -- on the field at the same time.

"It's scary," he said.

What's scary is none is older than 22. Moore is the youngest at 21.

"He's going to be good for a long time," Smith said of Moore.

Having that many young, fast toys along with a mobile quarterback in Newton gives Norv Turner more flexibility than most offensive coordinators in the league.

Having a defense capable of being among the top five in the league with that kind of offensive firepower gives the Panthers a feel similar to what they had in 2015 when they went a league-best 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl.

This team arguably has more offensive weapons, and it's going to take that to keep pace with New Orleans in the NFC South.

"We've got so many weapons on this team, we feed of each other," McCaffrey said.

But until Sunday, the rest of the NFL didn't know exactly how dangerous Moore can be. Had he not turned the fumble into a big play, there might still be uncertainty.

Moore initially tried to shrug off the importance of that moment, saying "all of them" when asked what his favorite play of the day was.

"I'm lying," he said after a slight pause and smile. "I'd say that fifth play, when it hit the ground. I knew I messed up, so I knew I had to make a play off it."