Asante Samuel brings welcome swagger to Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Somewhere on the Atlanta Falcons' practice field, between where Asante Samuel pounded his chest and yelled "Deuce! Deuce!" and where Sean Weatherspoon yelled back "How you doing?", Matt Ryan looked at the ground. And tamped down a teeny, tiny smile.

No, Ryan was not happy about getting picked off in the final 15 minutes of Atlanta's first full-team offseason practice. And yes, Ryan has heard Weatherspoon, the Falcons' third-year linebacker, jaw it up before. But this was Samuel. This was "oomph." This is just the kind of swagger the Falcons want.

"Asante got lucky today," Ryan said later, openly grinning this time, following the Falcons' first OTA session.

These Falcons are coming off as disappointing a 10-win season as a 10-win season can be. Ryan has yet to win a playoff game, the 10 wins were three less than the year before and somehow, Atlanta is flying under the radar in the NFC South. Enter Samuel, who may have come out of the womb confident. He's loud, his mouth is constantly moving, he's a ceaseless whirl of energy and everything he does is competitive.

"He's fun to be around," Ryan said.

"We definitely need his confidence," Weatherspoon said.

"You can see the first day: It's going to be a lot of fun," said cornerback Dunta Robinson, who ostensibly is competing with Samuel for playing time.

The specifics of who plays where (and when) have yet to be hammered out. Coach Mike Smith was purposefully vague Tuesday, noting that Samuel played at left corner and right corner before adding that he allows Atlanta "a lot of flexibility."

Samuel, of course, was operating under no such rules of diplomacy. So when he was asked, point blank, if he had a preference, he said, "You know I have a preference. I'm a left corner." It's a right-handed league, that's the quarterback's favorite side, and Samuel wants to be "where the ball is coming."

In all fairness, though, before he said any of that, he promised, "I'll do anything to help my team."

Samuel is here, and not in Philadelphia, because he, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made for one too many Eagles corners. The Falcons have two incumbent corners too, in Robinson and Brent Grimes. Still, this is a better fit, Samuel said, and not in the least because the Falcons expect to play sub packages (like a nickel with three corners) more often than their base defense. Robinson has said he'd like to play the slot corner, inside, and after Samuel's two-interception first day (his second pick was against John Parker Wilson), Robinson said, "I think having three corners, three very good corners, is a good problem to have."

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Problems are not dwelled on in May. It's the month of freshness and new pages -- a time when a player like Samuel says things like, "I'm loving it." Thing is, the Falcons, so far, are loving him back. They laughed when he struck poses, they hooted when he demanded Ryan throw the ball his way and give him some action and they joined in when he tried harassing the offense.

"Yeah, yeah, I've heard that for four years," Ryan said, with mock annoyance, referring to the times that he faced Samuel as an Eagle and a foe. "It's not new."

And yet, there is a sense of renewed vigor at the Falcons' facility, from the two new coordinators (Dirk Koetter on offense, Mike Nolan on defense) to the new coat of paint upstairs. Samuel and his energy are certainly part of that, and part of keeping this team from getting tight. Sure, Samuel's one player, but he's one with a big personality. Weatherspoon glowingly looked at him Tuesday and said, "He'll probably wear the yellow jacket one day."

Nine years and 45 interceptions into his career, the 31-year-old Samuel isn't thinking about retirement anytime soon. He definitely wanted out of Philadelphia. And there's definitely still a smidgen of bitterness, one he didn't bother hiding when he said, "They say the Eagles, they can run more defenses without me there, whatever that means." But he also, very seriously, said no, being traded for a mere seventh-round pick (translation: an Atlanta thievery) will not be a chip for him to wear on his shoulder. And he repeatedly talked about how the Falcons have embraced him and appreciate him.

"I'm over here to run however many defenses they need me to run and make the plays they need me to make," he said. "I'm happy."

So are his teammates. Including Ryan. Or, maybe, especially Ryan. After all, he doesn't have to face Samuel outside the practice field anymore.

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala

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