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Chargers Continue to Build Secondary with Samuel

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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The Chargers appear poised to give Asante Samuel Jr. every opportunity to become a starter on the outside.

It’s hard to win in the NFL with injuries, especially ones to elite players. But they sometimes work to be a blessing in disguise.

That could be the case for the Los Angeles Chargers defense. In the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Chargers selected cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., who will be a great addition, especially if All-Pro safety Derwin James and linebacker Drue Tranquill return to form.

If not for injuries to James and Tranquill, the Chargers might have chosen to again address the offensive line or an offensive position in the second round of the draft. Even without those two stars, the Chargers were 10th in yards allowed last season.

Without a doubt, James is Los Angeles’ best defender, and yet, the team was ninth in yards allowed without him playing a game in 2020.

The Chargers also only had free agent cornerback signee Chris Harris for nine games last season. It’s been five years since Harris was an All Pro, but he’s always been underappreciated and would have been a great help for Los Angeles in the games he missed last year.

Without those three defenders, the Chargers defense struggled in other areas outside of yards allowed. They finished 23rd in points allowed, 22nd in takeaways and 25th in sacks.

Despite technically being a top 10 defense, the unit lacked big plays. In addition to having the stars back, bringing in Samuel could help address that need.

Samuel is the son of a former big-play cornerback. Asante Samuel Sr. led the league in interceptions twice and made the All-Pro team in 2007 with the undefeated New England Patriots. Samuel Sr. won two Super Bowls and finished his career with 51 interceptions.

It’s not fair to pin those expectations on Samuel Jr. Although he had 29 pass defenses during three years at Florida State, he only had 4 interceptions.

But Samuel Jr. is built like his father. At about 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, he’s undersized. Yet, his instincts and cover skills give him the chance to start at either outside cornerback or in the slot during his career.

“Samuel Jr. is a touch undersized, but he is outstanding in man coverage where his natural pattern matching instincts, loose hips, and quick feet make him tough to separate from,” wrote Joe Marino of The Draft Network. “Despite not having ideal size, Samuel Jr. is a competitive run defender and tackler that gets his work done and isn’t a liability.

“While his frame may suggest to some that he’s slot only in the NFL, he’s in the mold of a Brandon Flowers/Denzel Ward and fully capable of playing wide in the NFL like he did in college—although he does have some experience in the slot.”

In addition to his lack of size, Samuel Jr. doesn’t have elite speed either -- just as his father didn’t. Pro Football Focus described Samuel Jr. as “a clone of his father” and compared him to other successful smaller cornerbacks such as Brent Grimes and Troy Hill.

But it will still be a challenge for Samuel Jr. covering a tall receiver such as Cortland Sutton. Samuel Jr. could potentially cover Sutton twice a year in the AFC West, and the fourth-year receiver is five inches taller than the rookie cornerback.

For that reason, other draft experts don’t seem to be as confident about his chances of succeeding outside in coverage.

“He plays with good technique in closing out and crowding receivers headed down the field but has a tendency to go overboard when face-guarding, turning his coverage into flags,” wrote NFL analyst Lance Zierlein. “Samuel has nickel talent, but might just be average as a pro.”

One NFL scout that Bob McGinn of The Athletic interviewed said Samuel Jr. is “more of a slot,” and added that his lack of size is an issue.

“He can get pushed around, and in run support, he’s more of an ankle-biter, drag-you-down type.”

Even if Samuel Jr. is better suited for playing in the slot, it’s not as if that isn’t a very important position in the modern NFL. There are more three-wide receiver sets in today’s game than ever before, which has almost turned the opposing defense’s third cornerback into a starter.

But the Chargers appear poised to give Samuel Jr. every opportunity to become a starter on the outside. The only cornerback ahead of him on the Chargers’ depth chart at Ourlads is Tevaughn Campbell, who was a 27-year-old rookie in 2020 and began his football career in the CFL.

If neither Samuel or Campbell appear to be the answer opposite Michael Davis at left cornerback, the Chargers could move Harris back to the outside. In the games he did play, Harris traveled around the field, playing various defensive back spots last year.

Perhaps that’s the role for Samuel, especially in 2021.

New Chargers head coach Brandon Staley will have options as long as these pieces are healthy. With everyone back on the field, the Chargers can be a top 10 defense while also posting more takeaways and sacks.

Should all those players not be healthy, bringing in Samuel Jr. isn’t a way to replace them, but he gives the Chargers another potential big-play defender.