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Why Asante Samuel is Worth Keeping in 2014

 Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Asante Samuel’s status for 2014 doesn’t look promising

If you happen to be a regular listener to the FalcFans Podcast or one of my followers on twitter, then you probably know of my strong feelings about Atlanta Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel and how his value to this team is underrated.

Samuel is likely to be released this offseason. While there have been no obvious indicators of his impending release, many signs points toward it. Samuel is set to cost the team between $5.1 million (according to the AJC) and $5.7 million (according to SpotRac) in cap space in 2014 (another says $5.25 million). For the record, the discrepancy in Samuel’s exact 2014 cap hit is based around conflicting reports on the size of the roster bonus(es) Samuel is set to receive this fall. Regardless of the exact amount, the cost isn’t quite so prohibitive, except for the fact that . Thus paying nearly $6 million for a player that might just be a backup is jarring.

Samuel is entering the final year of the three-year deal he signed with the Falcons upon his acquisition via trade before the 2012 season. And dependent on that source, his release will free up between $4 and $5 million in cap space this year. Samuel just turned 33 at the beginning of January and there aren’t very many cornerbacks over the ages of 31 and 32 that are playing at a high level Throw in the fact that Samuel was benched for the final four games of the 2013 season to make way for young up and comers like Robert Alford, it makes a lot of sense why Samuel will be cut.

Alford is an up and coming player and the Falcons have batted 1.000 when it came to their second round picks becoming starters in their second seasons. Samuel’s presence on the roster could inhibit the Falcons chances to get Alford on the field. Although I think that might be a bit overrated, but more on that later.

But first, let’s remove Robert Alford from the equation. Because how good a player he is has nothing to do with assessing Samuel’s real value. And that value is significant.

There is no doubt that Samuel is coming off a down year. His Pro Football Focus grade was -0.2, with a coverage grade of -2.0 last season, indicating slightly below average production. It clearly wasn’t a very productive year. After recording five interceptions and 19 pass breakups in 2012, that production fell to one and three, respectively, in 2013.

But one of the issues that raises is the difference between production and ability. What sites like Pro Football Focus really measure is production, not ability. Ability is better gauged watching and reviewing games. In terms of production, there was a steep drop for Asante in 2013. But in terms of ability, that drop was negligible.

Production is typically a reflection of ability, but it’s not always a one-to-one correspondence. Production can be affected by things like injuries, supporting cast, system, whether or not a team plays with a lead or consistently falls behind. All those factors can change, but it has minimal impact on ability because that is reflecting things like speed, tackling, ball skills, hands, strength, awareness, that are relatively static once a player has been in the league for a while.

The difference between the production versus ability is best illustrated with another Falcons defensive back: Thomas DeCoud. DeCoud had a very productive 2012, picking off a team-leading six passes and also breaking up nine passes, both career highs. It led to his making the Pro Bowl. But in terms of ability, DeCoud wasn’t significantly better in 2012 than he was in his three previous seasons as a starter. Thus when his production dropped off significantly in 2013, it was more in line with the sort of player that DeCoud has been for his entire career. DeCoud still struggled with missed tackles and mental errors in run support in 2012. The biggest difference was that he managed to make up for that with making more plays in coverage, plays that in previous years he didn’t make because he would regularly drop multiple interceptions in those seasons.

Essentially the same applies to Samuel. Samuel’s ability did not really drop off in 2013. He got beat deep a couple of times, but outside that handful of plays, Samuel was his usual self. The main difference is that he wasn’t in position to get as many interceptions and pass breakups as he was the year prior. Is that because of lessened ability? No, Samuel has always thrived as an opportunistic, gambling corner. There just weren’t as many opportunities for those gambles to pay off in 2013 as there were in 2012. Doesn’t mean those opportunities won’t once again arise in 2014.

And if Samuel’s history teaches us anything, then the odds are high that things will return to normal. 2013 was the first time in eight seasons that Samuel didn’t have at least three interceptions, and the first time in nine where he didn’t break up double-digit passes. Odds are fairly high that he has a rebound season in 2014 where his production is much more in line with the Hall of Fame-caliber player that has been preying on quarterbacks for the past decade.

But that raises the next question: how big a rebound year will 2014 be for Samuel? Obviously that is hard to determine without a crystal ball, which I lack. I’m optimistic that Samuel will be significantly improved from 2013, but not confident that his production will bounce back to 2012 levels.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Alford’s potential negatively affects Samuel

Let’s say Samuel is somewhere in the middle, between being one of the ten best corners in the league in 2012 to middle rung in 2013. Is that worth his current projected 2014 cap number? For many, the answer is no. And it’s much easier to say no when you have a viable alternative in Alford ready to step up.

But is Alford truly ready to step up? While I think Alford has the upside to be a very good corner in this league at some point in the future, I’m not convinced that point will be in 2014. It could certainly happen, but Alford was a bit too inconsistent in 2013. Per Moneyball, Alford blew 12 coverages (i.e. giving up a 20-plus yard play or getting beat on third down) on 380 snaps (per Pro Football Focus), an average of about one blown coverage every 31.7 snaps. Samuel on the other hand, blew six coverages on 279 snaps, a rate of one blown coverage every 46.5 snaps. Extrapolated out to a possible 600 coverage snaps they could see over an entire season, that is roughly a half dozen more blown coverages for Alford than Samuel. Not a glaring amount, but that’s a half dozen more plays that could be the difference between winning and losing in a half dozen games.

It’s certainly reasonable to expect that Alford can close that gap with improvement in his second year. But in regards to Alford’s ability, it’s likely that inconsistency will follow him due to sloppy technique and still-developing awareness. Certainly the potential is there for Alford to be inconsistent enough that the Falcons should have a good insurance policy in case he takes after Dunta Robinson as opposed to Samuel.

Is there a better insurance policy than Samuel? I don’t think so. The reality is that Samuel’s presence on the team doesn’t prevent the team from taking a longer look at Alford and making him the starter. The team could easily make the decision that given Samuel’s age and subpar run support skills, he is better suited to being the nickel cornerback and a situational player. He could come off the bench and play outside in the nickel, while Desmond Trufant slides inside to play the slot, a role he showed potential at as a rookie. That would allow Alford to remain outside and probably give the Falcons a stronger trio than one that features Robert McClain playing the slot with Trufant and Alford on the outside the norm at the end of 2013 following Samuel’s benching.

Perhaps there is an insurance cornerback that could be had at a much cheaper price however? And that is probably true. But that is the same sort of thinking that went into the team’s decision to cut John Abraham last year.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Samuel may not be all smiles in 2014

Abraham was in a similar boat as Samuel in that he saw a significant dropoff in production, but not necessarily in ability in 2012. The Falcons opted to cut Abraham due to him carrying a $7.25 million cap hit in 2013, and replaced him with Osi Umenyiora. By releasing Abraham, the Falcons saved $5.75 million in cap space, which resulted in a net savings of $2 million given that Umenyiora carried a $3.75 million cap hit last year.

In 2012, Abraham recorded 34 “positive pass rushes” (i.e. the combined sacks, pressures, and hits per Moneyball). In 2013 Umenyiora had 12.5, over a 60 percent drop in production for a player that carried roughly half the price tag. Clearly, the Falcons got what they paid for.

Could the same happen to the Falcons in 2014 by cutting Samuel? Well, in one sense since Samuel was so unproductive in 2013, the answer is no. It wouldn’t be hard to sign someone that could come in and exceed one interception and three pass breakups in 2014. But imagine if Samuel was capable of three interceptions and 11 pass breakups, the average of his 2012 and 2013 numbers. That is not easy production to come by. Had Alford played an entire season as a starter, his numbers would have exceeded that total. But that level of production for Samuel is better than what McClain did as the team’s nickel cornerback in 2012 (one interception, 10 breakups) in what was a very good year.

The Falcons can certainly find a younger, cheaper option than Samuel next year but probably not one that is better. Samuel is still a good player despite his poor production in 2013. And when looking at the impending free agents, those that are of comparable ability are likely to require a higher investment of dollars (e.g. Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis, Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes). If you want to go real cheap, then it’s likely that you’re going to get a significantly lesser player.

In the end, the Falcons will likely get what they pay. By saving a significant amount of money, they could see a comparable amount of dropoff in potential production from the position.

Ultimately, I will understand why the Falcons opt to cut Samuel. Just like I understood why the team decided to cut Abraham last year. As I said two years ago when suggesting that the team cut Michael Turner, the old adage says it’s better to be accused of cutting a guy a year too early rather than a year too late. And in the case of Samuel, he likely fits that mantra if the Falcons opt to move on.

Yet it becomes less about justification for cutting a player, and more about adequately replacing him. Last year, the Falcons failed to do that with Abraham. And they paid for it with one of the league’s weakest pass rushes and will likely be devoting significant dollars and/or draft choices this offseason to fix that problem. I don’t want to see the Falcons in that same predicament next year at the cornerback position.

The best way to avoid that is simply by keeping Samuel. His contract is going to expire in 2015 anyway, so he’ll need to be replaced regardless. The Falcons might as well wring out that last bit of ability and production from him in 2014 while they can.

One school of thought is that it’s better for the team to find out what they have in their young corners Alford and McClain sooner rather than later. Well, that’s the same school of thought that led to the disastrous play of the Falcons offensive line in 2013 by going young at a critical position.

If I didn’t still have the bitter taste of Abraham’s departure in my mouth, I probably wouldn’t be pounding the table as hard for Samuel staying. Unlike what Abraham did with the Arizona Cardinals this past year, I don’t expect Samuel to have a Pro Bowl season on another team in 2014. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he landed in a place like Carolina, where their defense is helmed by Sean McDermott, his former defensive coordinator in Philadelphia.

I would like to see the Falcons learn from the Abraham mistake and not throw away a pretty good player just to save some money. Especially when the team could easily find other avenues to save that money, such as restructuring Matt Ryan’s contract.

Not only are there strong indicators that Samuel will be improved in 2014, but he could in fact be good. And it’s clear that the Falcons are striving to improve as a team, and it becomes harder to do that if/when they cut good players like Asante Samuel.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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