NFL draft steal: Chargers' Asante Samuel Jr. proving he's ready for prime time

Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a first-, second- or third-year player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where he was selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Florida State CB Asante Samuel Jr.

Los Angeles Chargers
5-foot-10, 180 pounds
2021 NFL draft: Round 2, No. 47 overall

On Thursday, Samuel was selected as the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for September. Through three games, he leads all rookies in interceptions (two) and passes defended (four). Samuel is both the first rookie to record multiple INT's and PD's in the season's opening month in six years, and the 21-year-old Samuel also is the first non-first-rounder to record multiple picks in September since 1982.

In short, he's been fantastic. And it's how Samuel is doing it that's caught some scouts' attention: as an outside corner. Samuel was thought to be too small to handle perimeter duty in the NFL, perhaps requiring a shift inside to nickel duty. Through two games, PFF has charted Samuel as taking two of his 188 defensive snaps in the slot. 

Samuel is making a big contribution to a defense that now ranks seventh in passing yards allowed, tied for ninth in interceptions and tied for seventh in points allowed. That despite the fact that it has faced two of the league's more dangerous passing attacks in the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs the past two weeks.

How did Samuel slide to the middle of Round 2? And is this just a brief flurry from the rookie, or does he project to keep thriving in coverage? Let's take a look back.

How we viewed Asante Samuel Jr. as a prospect

A 4-star Rivals recruit (No. 46 nationally), Samuel signed with FSU and saw the field right away as a true freshman. In 2018, he started three of 12 games, making 17 tackles (one for loss) and nine pass breakups. The next season Samuel had 48 tackles (one for loss), one interception and an ACC-best 14 passes defended (eighth nationally). 

As a junior, Samuel started the first eight games in 2020, recording 31 tackles (one for loss), three interceptions and six pass breakups prior to opting out for the remainder of the season and declaring for the 2021 draft. He's the son of the former Patriots, Eagles and Falcons cornerback who made four Pro Bowls and intercepted 51 passes in 11 NFL seasons.

The younger Samuel struck us, however, as a different type of prospect than his father. Perhaps wanting to blaze his own trail to the NFL, Samuel told us about trying to separate himself from his father's legacy.

In our pre-draft scouting report, we wrote: 

We see Samuel thriving best in a heavy zone and off-man system, possibly as a nickel. He should be given a chance to perform outside before making that call. Samuel might be on the small side and lose some physical battles, but he has the temperament to make it work in the long run. Any team seeking more playmaking in its secondary should make a run at him.

So far, that's played out close to how we imagined. Then again, so was our projected draft range: "Top 50 pick," as well as our pre-draft ranking for him: "No. 45 overall." They were arrived at based on the conversations we had with teams leading up to the first round, sensing there was a greater chance of Samuel going in Round 2 than in Round 1.

But why?

Why did Samuel slip in the draft?

A total of 11 cornerbacks have been selected in the past two first rounds of the NFL draft. It's a position that's high up on the importance scale — below quarterbacks but above most other positions.

So it's through that lens that we must step back and ask: Was Samuel really a draft slider? After all, it comes down to what you want — size, athleticism, man vs. zone coverage ability, and so on — at the position, which can split hairs between closely graded prospects.

But on the flip side, ask yourself this: Would Samuel go higher, knowing what we know now, had we redone the draft? Samuel was the seventh corner drafted in April, just three picks after Kentucky's Kelvin Joseph, who has spent the season on IR to date. 

Only four rookie corners have played more coverage snaps than Samuel's 112, and only two have earned higher coverage grades than he has: the Raiders' Nate Hobbs (in 113 coverage snaps) and the Jets' Michael Carter II (in 74).

We suspect top-10 picks Patrick Surtain Jr. and Jaycee Horn (coincidentally, also both sons of former NFL players) still would go ahead of Samuel. But not too many more CB prospects would in any draft redo. Even after three games.

The biggest knocks on him leading up to the draft were his size, his lack of physicality and his tendency to be a bit grabby in coverage. 

The good news so far is that Samuel hasn't been bullied physically and has been flagged for one penalty (pass interference) in his three games. The Chargers are mixing zone and man coverages under new coordinator Renaldo Hill and head coach Brandon Staley, and Samuel is responding with veteran-level play.

Oddly, his NFL pedigree doesn't appear to have helped him much in terms of draft positioning. In that regard, we view him in a similar vein to 2020 second-rounder Antoine Winfield Jr., another undersized DB prospect who shined as a rookie, despite them playing different roles. Perhaps strong football bloodlines carry more weight than some realize.

Future forecast

The future appears very bright for Samuel and the Chargers. They've made some nice draft finds in recent years, and he appears to be registering at a first-round value despite going lower.

At some point, Samuel's lack of length and middling tackling ability could be challenged. He's also an aggressive player, so teams will test that with double moves and deep shots. Samuel will need to adjust and show he can be a well-rounded corner.

But the early results suggest he's off to a fantastic start. Samuel looks to be one of the brighter young cornerback prospects in the league right now. Most arrows appear to be pointing firmly upward for him.

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