As mentioned in the Patrick Surtain II draft profile, the New England Patriots have an aging secondary with only one starting cornerback on the roster — Jonathan Jones — signed past this upcoming season.
J.C. Jackson will be a restricted free agent this spring, so should be returning this year, but will enter unrestricted free agency next year if a long-term deal cannot be not reached until that point. In addition to Jackson, former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore will become a free agent after the season ass well, and is potentially looking for one final pay day before wrapping up a strong career.
With the amount of potential exits at the position next year, perhaps the best way to go is to draft multiple defensive backs and get them ready for when they will be needed to start further down the line. This year’s draft is pretty solid at the cornerback position, with plenty of players for the team to consider even in the middle rounds. One such player is a familiar name for Patriots fans, as his father was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2003 draft and played five seasons with the team.
History may end up repeating itself 18 years later, with Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr. having declared for the draft.
Name: Asante Samuel Jr.
School: Florida State (Junior)
Size: 5’10”, 184 lbs
2019-20 Stats: 20 games, 79 tackles, 4 INT, 20 passes deflected, 1 forced fumble
Expected Draft Range: 2nd-3rd
Strengths: Samuel is an aggressive man coverage corner with the versatility to play both outside and in the slot. In his final two years at Florida Stare, he showcased his ability to play the ball by contesting 24 total passes (20 PDs, 4 INTs) in 20 games. Both his sophomore and junior seasons he averaged more than one contested pass per game, so there are multiple years of good production on his résumé.
The Patriots have had their best defenses when they are comfortable with their corners against the opposing receivers, as that gives Bill Belichick the freedom to call either more Cover 0 looks or disguise a standard four- or five-man rush (i.e. show blitz but drop some potential blitzers into coverage).
Weaknesses: Samuel is at his best when playing in his man’s face, but struggles with zones and when playing off-man. That’s not a big issue for the Patriots, though, as that can be fixed with mentoring from some of the team’s veterans as well as the coaching staff. Another issue is Samuel isn’t consistent at turning his head and locating the football when in phase with the receiver. Most cornerback-wide receiver matchups are won or lost at the line of scrimmage, but against elite quarterback-receiver duos who can attack him with back-shoulders, jump balls, and double moves it can be a problem.
The other elephant in the room is the size. He measures at an average build for the position at 5-foot-10, 184 pounds, although I have seen CBs with similar height and weight be able to play effectively outside. Players like Denzel Ward, Brandon Flowers and Malcolm Butler come to mind as corners who overcame their lack of ideal size and length to be productive players. On the flip side, however, the lack of size makes him vulnerable to players who specialize in catching the ball above the shoulders where Samuel won’t be able to contest the pass. Fortunately, there are very few receivers and quarterbacks who can create that problem.
Why the Patriots should draft him: Belichick loves drafting defensive backs in the second round for whatever rhyme or reason, which suggests he highly values the position. Given that the vast majority of the Patriots’ current personnel could be leaving within the next 14-15 months, the team needs to get their replacements ready to go in that same timespan.
Samuel’s ability to play outside and in the slot will get him on the field as a depth option at corner and he has special teams value as a potential punt/kickoff coverage player.
Why the Patriots might not draft him: It comes down to which player presents more value at the time the Patriots are selecting. Small things like size or special teams viability (i.e. kick/punt return skills) are tiebreakers when evaluating corners the Patriots should select in the first two rounds of the draft. Should the team land a corner like Patrick Surtain II or Caleb Farley, which is unlikely, then obviously picking Samuel in the second round doesn’t make sense unless he is by far the best player on the Patriots’ board at that point.
Samuel does have some exploitable issues in man coverage that could rear their ugly head in the playoffs against more skilled QBs in the AFC like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Another issue at hand is the limited special teams fit, as his impact is capped to mostly covering kickoffs and punts.
Who he would have to beat out: As a rookie, Samuel would be assured a roster spot but he’d have to compete with Joejuan Williams and D’Angelo Ross for the fourth cornerback role, with the team likely only dressing the winner every week. The secondary will likely feature Gilmore and Jackson on the outside with Jones playing the slot. Being able to play both spots is key to get Samuel on the field as a rookie to gain experience.
2021 Role: As mentioned above, Samuel will have to earn a role in the defense as a rookie. With the potential departure of Jason McCourty, the Patriots will need a fourth CB in the rotation who can be the top guy off the bench if there is an injury. Samuel would have the inside track over Williams for that role since the latter is comparatively limited and hasn’t taken advantage of the few opportunities he’s gotten so far.
2022 and beyond role: After the Patriots move on from their aging secondary players, Samuel would have the inside track to win a starting job on the perimeter in Year Two. With New England’s secondary looking at a potential major overhaul next offseason, the experience that Samuel would get as a rookie would be pivotal. As noted above, Jonathan Jones is the only CB signed past this upcoming season, although for only one more season.
Conclusion: With the Patriots needing to develop young players in their secondary, Samuel is an option should one of the top corners in the draft not fall into the Patriots’ range in the first round. He also makes sense if paired up with either a wide receiver or front seven selection on Day Obe, as the Patriots will need to build up both their pass offense and defense. While the Patriots’ run defense the past few years has been questionable, ultimately the games are won and lost with their ability to control the passing game on both sides of the ball.