COSTA MESA, CA – When the Chargers parted ways with longtime cornerback Casey Hayward in the offseason the need to fill those shoes became urgent. Heading into this year’s NFL Draft, the Chargers as an organization had the mindset of not drafting by position.
But with Hayward’s spot vacated it became obvious an elite-level cornerback had to be on the team’s agenda when it came to addressing draft needs.
Besides making sure the offensive line was on point enough to protect quarterback Justin Herbert, the Chargers knew they had to find a player that could best resemble Hayward’s superior cover skills as well as provide some toughness on the edge.
And since the Chargers don’t make it a habit of drafting cornerbacks (2015 was the last time the team made such a move), the player that would be the right pick for that spot turns out to be another Florida State defensive back gem whose father has already made his mark in the NFL. Asante Samuel Jr. comes from a championship pedigree.
His dad, Asante Samuel, played in the NFL for 11 seasons. The elder Samuel was drafted by the New England Patriots and became a four-time Pro Bowler. And yes, he is a Super Bowl champion-twice over. The linage must not drop too far from the tree.
The Chargers saw something in the former Florida State stalwart to make him the No. 47 selection overall in this year’s draft.
“Very excited that he was there,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said at the end of Day 2 of the NFL Draft. “We weren’t necessarily drafting for need. He has such a great competitive spirit with how he plays and challenges receivers every down, both in the run game and pass game. Rally instinctive at both reading routes and finding the football. Extremely quick. He’ll fit in very well with our defensive back room. Very, very excited that we were able to select him right there.”
After the Chargers drafted him, head coach Brandon Staley was effusive in his praise of Samuel.
“This guy is really instinctive,” Staley said. “He can play bump and run, he can play off. This guy has outstanding feet. He has really good concept trigger. When he’s off and he’s visual off the quarterback, being able to see the quarterback first and then the receiver — this guy has a really good feel for route concepts. You really see a guy that can key-diagnose and that really jumps off the page.
“He has outstanding quickness,” Staley added. “This guy can judge the ball in the deep part of the field. This guy has really good ball skills. This guy can play in and out of phase and he’s a really well-rounded player. He’s a good open field tackler and we feel he has position flexibility. Just feel like he’s a complete DB, he’s really tough, competitive, fearless competitor, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Potential is a good thing. Judging from his family bloodlines and Florida State’s track record of producing all-world defensive backs, including teammate Derwin James Jr., Xavier Rhodes of the Indianapolis Colts, and Jalen Ramsey of the Los Angeles Rams (to name a few), Samuel has the potential to be a great one.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Before all of these accolades are draped on him as perhaps the next best thing next to sliced bread even before he has ever played his first NFL football game, the younger Samuel has to prove he’s teachable. He has to master the playbook. He has to adjust to life in the NFL. He has to go through a process that all rookies go through in their first season.
That also means showing up and going through rookie minicamp drills and being fully integrated into the way the Chargers do things.
“Day one, it was good,” Samuel said in a video conference. “Guys were flying around, coaches had good energy, and guys were communicating, trying to make sure we knew our assignments. I feel like we got better today.”
One thing Samuel doesn’t have to work on too much is his confidence. For some rookies, getting used to and quickly adapting to the whole NFL experience can be eye-opening. Samuel has no such problem. With his dad serving as a mentor and coming from the land of a major Division 1 football program, Samuel said the adjustment to being a pro hasn’t been too hard…yet.
“It’s not really [difficult] because I’ve been preparing for this all of my life and the same time as at Florida State, and now here,” Samuel said. “I feel like I’m mentally prepared. I just have to get out there and get acclimated with the team, the plays and the coaches. Then, I feel like everything will be smooth.”
The first step to help make for a smooth transition Is for the three-year Florida State starter to firmly get a handle of whatever verbiage that’s thrown at him inside of the team’s playbook. So far, so good, Samuel said.
“It’s going well,” said Samuel. “Our coaches have been giving us bits and pieces of the playbook before we get with the veterans and stuff like that. They’re just trying to get us the base calls and things that we do regularly and day-to-day. It has been kind of smooth, so we’re just trying to take it day-by-day.”
Another area that figures to help Samuel as he embarks on his rookie journey this season is the type of relationship he develops with James, an All-Pro safety for the Chargers in 2018. The nucleus the two players form on and off the field could be instrumental in how well they play together and how good the Chargers secondary as a unit will be. Samuel is eager to see that come to fruition.
“He (James) was excited when we spoke,” Samuel said. “He was, basically as soon as I got drafted, telling me the plays and what is going to be going on. I appreciate him for that. We definitely stay in touch. He hit me up this morning, saying, ‘Just keep grinding.’ We’re probably going to watch some film one of these days when he’s free. He’s just trying to get me acclimated to the Chargers.”