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He has free agency cornered

Patriots' Samuel close to cashing in

ASANTE SAMUEL NFL-best six interceptions ASANTE SAMUEL NFL-best six interceptions
Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / November 30, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - Asante Samuel's first job was landscaping in Coral Springs, Fla. For mowing lawns, planting trees, and digging up yards, the 12-year-old Samuel was paid the tidy sum of $300 a week.

The enterprising Patriots cornerback always has been willing to work for his pay, and this time it's going to pay off big.

Unable to reach an agreement on a lucrative long-term deal with the Patriots after they slapped the franchise tag on him during the offseason, Samuel missed a month of training camp, balking at signing his $7.79 million tender. When he finally signed, he got the Patriots to add provisions that prohibit them from franchising him again if he plays 60 percent of the defensive snaps or the team wins 12 games. New England is 11-0 heading into its Monday night matchup with the Baltimore Ravens, and Samuel, who is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with six, is one win from cashing in on his status as one of the game's best cornerbacks.

"I knew what he was capable of and we needed to make sure he was protected," said Alonzo Shavers, Samuel's agent. "We knew Asante was going to be in this situation. We did know what he was capable of, and we knew if he played to his capabilities, he would be in a situation similar to this. We just wanted to put Asante in the best situation for him."

While some doubted the 26-year-old could duplicate the career year he had last season, when he intercepted 10 passes, tying for the league lead, and added two more in the playoffs, both of which he returned for touchdowns, Samuel always believed his play would speak for itself.

"I believe in myself. I believe in my abilities. I know I work hard. I know I understand the game," said Samuel. "I can go out there with a little swag, knowing that I can play this position. I can play this position at a high level. If you want to be known as one of the greatest to ever play the game, you've got to go out there with a little swag and a little confidence and make plays to back it up."

That's what Samuel has done. He had three straight games with an interception earlier this season, and last Sunday in a 31-28 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles he intercepted two passes, one of which he returned 40 yards for a touchdown, his third regular-season interception return for a score and the sixth of his career.

Vilified and vituperated for his stubborn de facto holdout, Samuel, whose 16 interceptions over the last two seasons (not including playoffs) are the most in the NFL, has been redeemed.

"It's kind of hard when people are just yapping about you and saying stuff that you know is not true and you're not this and you don't deserve this, and they're not in your shoes," Samuel said. "But it comes with the territory and I didn't let it bother me."

Now the debate is over. Samuel is an elite corner. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said so earlier this week, answering, "Absolutely," when asked if he considered Samuel one.

Rod Woodson, a surefire Hall of Famer who made the NFL's 75th anniversary team at cornerback, agreed.

"I believe he's in that category of elite cornerbacks in the league with Champ Bailey in Denver and Al Harris in Green Bay and Nnamdi Asomugha with the Raiders because he is consistent," said Woodson, now an analyst for the NFL Network. "Asante is right there with everybody. He leads the league in interceptions and he's an elite corner. That's hard to do. When you're an elite corner, usually you're not going to get a lot of picks."

Woodson was adamant that Samuel is not a product of the Patriots' system. "I would argue with whoever says that because it's not like a Cover-2 system," Woodson said. "I believe Asante can go anywhere and fit in and play well."

If the Patriots want Samuel to remain here, it could mean having to offer him a Nate Clements-type deal. Clements, who played out a franchise year with the Bills last season, was rewarded by the 49ers during the offseason with an eight-year, $80 million contract that included $22 million in bonuses and guarantees. Key to Clements's deal is that in the first three years of the contract he is slated to earn $28.9 million.

"It's hard to find playmakers. If he's not there next year, they lose a vital part of that defense," said Woodson, who indicated Samuel is one of the Patriots' three or four most important players. "I think Nate got the contract of the century for the cornerback position. He set the bar and Asante should be thanking him. He knows, 'I've just got to play well and that type of opportunity will come for me.' "

Traditionally, the Patriots have set their own value on players, but this is a case where there are enough teams that have seen what Samuel can do that somebody will back up the Brinks truck for No. 22.

"The elite players find a way to get their hands on the ball," said Woodson. "That's a rare talent and I think several teams are willing to pay for that. A lot of corners have opportunities week in and week out and the good thing about Asante is he's catching the ones that come to him."

Samuel said that's the biggest difference in his play over the last two seasons. He pointed to 2004, his second year in the league, as one of his best seasons, but he had just one interception.

"I heard a comment from Champ Bailey the other day. He said, 'A lot of cornerbacks are going to have the opportunity to make plays and it's up to you to come down and make the plays.' That's what I try to do," said Samuel.

"When an opportunity presents itself to me, I just try to capitalize and make the plays. I'm not perfect. I have dropped some interceptions. I dropped one in that [Philadelphia] game, another one I could have taken to the house. It's all about putting yourself in the right position. It's a game of angles and leverage."

Barring a serious injury or a complete collapse by the Patriots, it would appear the leverage at the bargaining table has shifted Samuel's way.

Shavers said the Patriots are "always in the mix" when it comes to Samuel. "New England bred him. He wouldn't be where he is and who he is today if he wasn't under their tutelage," Shavers said.

Samuel was too smart to get caught up in talking about his contract status.

"I'm concentrating on the season, and whatever happens happens. I think it will work out good for me," he said.

When pressed further, Samuel said: "I would love to be here."

Maybe that was the truth. Maybe it was another smart business move. Just like with his coverages, Samuel is tough to read. He rarely tips his hand.

The one thing you can count on is that he has an unshakable belief in his ability.

"People say I play with confidence. I'm just confident in myself," said Samuel.

And it's about to pay off.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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