Paul Domowitch: Not surprisingly, Samuel the talk of Falcons camp

Asante Samuel is chirping in Atlanta. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Asante Samuel is chirping in Atlanta. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: August 08, 2012

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Asante Samuel was being, well, Asante Samuel.

It was nearly 2 hours into the Falcons' afternoon training-camp practice and his voice was as constant as the broiling Georgia sun.

Samuel had just broken up a deep ball for wide receiver Julio Jones and immediately chastised both Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan for being foolish enough to challenge him.

"I'm not going for that cornbread [bleep]," he said. "That's a low-percentage play, man. Low-percentage play. Why don't you throw something you can complete?"

A few minutes later, he turned his attention to the officials working the practice for calling an obvious pass-interference penalty on another Falcons defensive back.

"They don't want to see no damn flags on TV, ref," Samuel hollered. "They want to see some damn football. Let's get the real refs back."

When the air horn finally blew to end practice, Samuel turned to his offensive teammates and said, "Offense, you gotta stay on for 30 more minutes."

The man is nothing if not entertaining.

"He's a fun guy to be around," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of the former Eagle. "He keeps the practices lively. Especially when you get into the dog days of two-a-days. Sometimes you need that comic relief."

Said Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes: "That's Asante. He talks. A lot. To the crowd, to the offense, to everybody. I like it. Everybody likes it."

The Falcons, of course, are hoping to get more than comic relief from the 31-year-old, four-time Pro Bowl corner, whom they acquired from the Eagles in April for the bargain-basement price of a seventh-round draft pick. They are hoping to get interceptions. Lots of them.

Samuel is one of the game's best ballhawks. He's got 45 career interceptions and a league-best 39 over the last six seasons. But those numbers have steadily dropped the last 3 years, from nine in 2009 to seven in 2010 to just three last year.

He vehemently disagrees, though, with any suggestion that he is slipping.

"Thirty-one is just a number," he said of his age. "You watch me on the field. Do I look 31? First day I got here, the coaches watched me on the field and said, ‘Damn, you're as quick as [bleep].' So age isn't a factor with me. I'm still as fast and as explosive as I was when I was younger. That won't change for a couple of years." Samuel's three picks last season were his fewest since '05, his third year in the league. He blamed it on fewer opportunities, suggesting not as many balls were thrown at him. But according to profootballfocus.com, Samuel was targeted 61 times last season, which was just eight fewer times than he was targeted in '09, when he had nine interceptions.

Regardless, the Falcons are excited to have him.

"His record speaks for itself as far as making plays on the ball," Smith said. "We feel he's going to be a big addition to our defense. He's going to give us a lot of flexibility. It's a matchup league. You've got to be able to match up against teams that are going to play three-wide-receiver sets. It gives us a lot of flexibility adding him."

The Eagles traded Samuel because they couldn't find a way to effectively use their three Pro Bowl corners – Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – at the same time against those three-wide sets. The problem: none of them could play inside.

In Atlanta, he joins a defense that also has two other established corners – Grimes, a Philly native, and Dunta Robinson. But unlike the Eagles, one of them – Robinson – can move inside.

"I'm excited about it," Robinson said. "I played some [slot] early in my career. I hadn't really been able to do it here because of third corner issues. But now, with Asante here, we don't have that issue anymore. I'm able to move around and be versatile.

“Asante definitely makes that easy. He's a guy you know can step right in and make plays. Our defense got much better when we picked him up."

Interestingly, the Eagles think theirs got better with his departure. For starters, they can move Rodgers-Cromartie back outside, where he belongs. Putting him in the slot was like putting an antelope in a backyard in Mayfair.

They also feel that the styles of play of Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are better suited than Samuel for the press coverage that defensive coordinator Juan Castillo wants to play. Samuel prefers to play off receivers.

Samuel, though, insists that, contrary to popular opinion, he never had a problem playing press coverage.

"I'm a defensive player," he said. "I can play any coverage. It's never been a problem. I can play press, back off, zone, man, whatever. Most of my picks have come in man.

“I prefer to play off. But I can play press and never had a problem with it when they asked. How all of a sudden did I become the problem there? When my coach here [defensive coordinator Mike Nolan] asked me to play it, I did, and he said, ‘Man, I didn't know you knew how to play press that good.'

“My first couple of years in the league [with the Patriots], we played press every game. That's never been a problem. I didn't have as many interceptions. But I was in the top five in [fewest] balls caught on me. Then I realized if I played off, I could have a lot more interceptions."

A seventh-round pick isn't much for a four-time Pro Bowl corner with 45 career interceptions. The Eagles had better offers for him last year after they brought in Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie. But they got greedy.

"They had me out there swinging like a rag doll," Samuel said. "[They were saying], ‘Hey, we got Asante Samuel for sale. I feel like they devalued me. But it is what it is."

By April, only a few teams still were interested in Samuel. One was the Falcons, whose general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, was the Patriots' director of college scouting in '03 when they drafted Samuel in the fourth round out of Central Florida.

"Me and Thomas always had a good relationship," Samuel said. "Coach [Andy] Reid and I sat down and considered the options. He let me pick and choose where I wanted to go. This was the No. 1 place I wanted to go. My family's in Florida [he has four children] and I got a couple of other situations going on in my life. It was important to be close to home and my family for whenever they needed me."

Don't get too carried away with that pick-and-choose line. The truth is the salad bar at Pizza Hut has more to pick and choose from than Reid did in April. If somebody had made him a substantially better offer than the Falcons, he probably wouldn't have cared quite as much about Samuel's preferences.

Samuel likes Reid, and the feeling is mutual, though Andy almost certainly would have liked him a lot better if he had tackled somebody every now and then. But as Asante likes to say, it is what it is. The Eagles knew what they were getting when they signed him to that big contract in 2008. And they knew what they were giving away when they traded him.

Samuel's only real beef with the organization, he said, is the way he feels they misled him last summer and fall after they acquired Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie.

"When they first traded for DRC, I got a call from upstairs and everybody was excited," he said. "They said, ‘We got DRC. You and him are going to be great together.' Then, no sooner did they hang up then I got another call telling me they had signed Nnamdi and that people were calling and wanting to trade for me.

“First they told me I wasn't up for trade; that those were just rumors and this and that. At the end of the day, it was all a lie. They did have a trade [in October] on the table, but it broke down at the last minute.

“My situation, I just thought things could have been handled a lot better, in a totally different way. But it was handled how it was handled. We just tried to make the best of it. At the end of the day, I ended up in a place I wanted to be. So I can't complain."  

Contact Paul Domowitch at pdomo@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @PDomo. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.eagletarian.com.

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