Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. exudes confidence. It's not just the assurance of a natural-born corner, though that's part of the package. His calm, cool exterior is necessary at arguably the most difficult position in today's pass-first game.
"I feel like I'm the best corner in the draft," Samuel says, and it doesn't sound like he's boasting.
During a phone interview with Bleacher Report, the Florida State product and early entrant in the 2021 NFL draft expressed an eagerness to prove himself without relying on his surname while simultaneously railing against the limitations teams might place on him because of his size.
He is determined to be a first-round pick and contribute as soon as he steps on to a professional field.
The first-team All-ACC performer has competition to become the first cornerback off the board, of course. Alabama's Patrick Surtain II, Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley and South Carolina's Jaycee Horn are projected in many cases to be drafted before Samuel.
But there's a difference in each of their frames compared to Samuel's.
NFL teams prefer long and lanky corners with the size to win at the jam and enough length to regularly make plays on the ball. Each of those three players was listed at 6'1" or taller and more than 200 pounds. Samuel is 5'10", 184 pounds.
"Size doesn't really matter," he says. "You have to produce on the field. There are plenty of guys who are 5'9", 5'10" and 5'11" and make plays at the NFL level. Size is just a number."
To his point, the position features players with a variety of skill sets.
The Los Angeles Rams' Jalen Ramsey is arguably the league's best cornerback. The two-time All-Pro can physically overwhelm receivers and even shut down bigger targets such as the Seattle Seahawks' DK Metcalf. At 6'1", 208 pounds, though, Ramsey isn't as proficient when it comes to slowing smaller and quicker receivers who excel in creating space in small areas. Precise route-runners can give any defensive back trouble.
|Top Cornerbacks Prospects|
|Patrick Surtain II||Alabama||6'2"||202|
|Caleb Farley||Virginia Tech||6'2"||207|
|Jaycee Horn||South Carolina||6'1"||200|
|Asante Samuel Jr.||Florida State||5'10"||184|
Others such as the Buffalo Bills' Tre'Davious White and Green Bay Packers' Jaire Alexander don't have the same build yet are in the conversation with Ramsey. White and Alexander are 5'11", 192 pounds, and 5'10", 196 pounds.
So much in playing the position extends beyond the physical. Yes, every team should want corners with long arms, outstanding vertical jumps and excellent long speed. At the same time, the best players rely on hip fluidity, route recognition, footwork and ball skills. A cornerback can get away with not having ideal measurables if they excel in the areas that really matter.
Over the last decade, ball skills have worked their way to the forefront. The joke used to be that if a cornerback could catch, they'd play offense. That's no longer the case. Blanketing a receiver is only part of the job. The ability to not only get one's hand on a pass but to also pluck it from the air is more important than ever.
Samuel's ball skills improved dramatically in college. He went from zero interceptions in 2018 to one in 2019 to three in 2020.
"It comes down to making the plays when the ball comes toward you," he says. "My sophomore year, I dropped a lot of interceptions. If I caught those, this would have been a different story. I have to make more plays on the ball each season."
After Florida State's third game last season, Samuel led college football with three interceptions and ranked third with five pass breakups. Opponents had targeted him only to be shut down.
According to Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus, Samuel allowed 179 yards and a 46.2 passer rating in eight games. Coming into the season, PFF had ranked him first in forced incompletion percentage among Power Five cornerbacks since 2018.
As CFB Film Room noted, he allowed just one touchdown in 2019. He had one breakdown this fall, and that wasn't necessarily coverage related. Samuel flew up to tackle North Carolina State wide receiver Emeka Emezie after a simple curl route, didn't break down to properly make the tackle and was given the slip before Emezie scored.
Samuel credits his success to two things: hips and ball skills.
Samuel, the son of four-time Pro Bowl cornerback and two-time Super Bowl champion Asante Samuel, spent last offseason working on turning pass breakups into takeaways.
"I caught a lot of balls after practice," Samuel says. "Every day, I spent time on the JUGS machine. It's those little things in practice that I want to translate on to the field."
Mental processing is also key to cornerbacks' success. They can be fluid and athletic, but it doesn't mean much if they don't understand how offenses are trying to attack. Make no mistake, NFL offenses look for players to pick on, and they will exploit the weakest links.
"Since high school, I was big on film and studying my opponents," Samuel says. "I always take that into consideration when I'm on the field. I read the keys I see on the film and use them to get better on the field based on the knowledge accumulated through film studies."
After nearly two seasons with Willie Taggart at the helm, Florida State hired Mike Norvell before the 2020 campaign. As such, Samuel had to be malleable regarding his role and how to fulfill different coaches' expectations. Considering the amount of turnover in the NFL, his willingness to adapt should serve him well.
"I had two different coaching staffs. I didn't really have a set approach," he says. "I did what was best for the team and adapted to whatever they needed me to do with the best of my ability.
"My goal is for the receiver not to catch the pass whether I'm in man or zone coverage. I want to make sure I do my 1/11 and fulfill most of what I can in my role."
Florida State was 14-20 in Samuel's three seasons.
"I needed to stay level-headed and always remain focused," he says. "You can't look too far into the future or the past. You simply have to maximize your day every day."
Productive cornerbacks always hold value, and that's doubly true for those with outstanding coverage and ball skills. Samuel may not be the first corner off the board in April, but he has the skill set to back up his statement that he is the best in the class.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.