In today's NFL, is it better to have a ball hawk or a lockdown defender as your No. 1 cornerback?
While both guys entered the league in the 2003 draft and have since established themselves as premier players at the position, their contrasting playing styles made it impossible for Philadelphia to incorporate them into the same scheme. With Reid valuing size, length and man cover skills, he opted for Asomugha as the Eagles' No. 1 corner and shipped Samuel to the Atlanta Falcons the day before the 2012 NFL Draft.
Although this move was viewed as a win-win for both teams, I decided to dig into the film to see if the Eagles kept the superior overall cornerback. Here are my findings:
Asomugha has earned a reputation as one of the NFL's premier press corners. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he smothers receivers at the line. Asomugha destroys the timing of routes by quick-jamming receivers following the snap, before jumping into a trail position that allows him to undercut short routes. The combination of physicality and superb hip-pocket positioning makes Asomugha difficult to elude, and quarterbacks are forced to make precise throws to complete passes in his direction.
Asomugha gets a good jam on Roberts and forces him closer to the sideline, shrinking the room for the quarterback to hit his intended receiver:
With Asomugha in terrific hip-pocket position, an underthrown ball results in an easy interception.
Samuel is an effective playmaker in man coverage. Although his finesse style is drastically different than his counterpart, Samuel consistently blankets receivers in isolated matchups and surrenders few completions in his direction.
While some have described Samuel as a careless gambler on the edge, I didn't see it that way when I broke down the film. Sure, he is aggressive jumping short and intermediate routes, but his success can be attributed to his exceptional ability to recognize routes, hash-split alignments and quarterback drops. Opponents occasionally take advantage of his aggressiveness by attacking him with double moves, but the positive plays produced by Samuel makes his frequent gambles well worth the risk.
Asomugha spent his first eight years playing in an aggressive bump-and-run system with the Oakland Raiders, so he has little experience with zone concepts. He has proven to be a quick study in Philadelphia, but part of his struggles as an Eagle were due to his unfamiliarity with some of the intricacies of zone coverage and technique. From pattern recognition to backpedaling in space, Asomugha's acclimation to a new style of play prevented him from performing up to his potential. Although he made strides over the course of the season, Asomugha remains raw and unpolished in this aspect of his game.
Samuel is undoubtedly one of the best cover corners in the business. He combines outstanding quickness and movement skills with remarkable instincts. I haven't seen many corners better at reading and anticipating routes, and Samuel's ability to pull the trigger is unrivaled at the position. As I looked at the film, I marveled at his ability to play with his eyes on the quarterback while maintaining proper leverage on the receiver down the field. In the video to your right, Samuel snags a pick by simultaneously anticipating Julio Jones' skinny post and seeing Matt Ryan release the ball. (I bet neither Jones nor Ryan minds having Samuel on the Falcons' sideline nowadays ...)
With 45 interceptions in nine seasons, including 23 during his four-year tenure with the Eagles, Samuel has shown how much an instinctive playmaker can impact a defense with remarkable zone-cover skills.
Defensive coordinators will cite turnovers as the biggest factor in winning games. Asomugha has been lauded for his ability to lock down the field with suffocating cover skills, but he is not a natural ball hawk in the back end. In nine seasons, he has collected only 14 interceptions, with eight of those picks coming in 2006. Although his proficiency at playing man coverage is partially to blame for his low career numbers (corners in man-to-man coverage typically collect fewer interceptions due to their eyes being on the receiver instead of the quarterback), he is not the turnover machine most defensive coordinators covet in the secondary. He simply doesn't get his hands on enough balls to create takeaway opportunities, and it is hard to win in the NFL without generating turnovers.
Samuel, on the other hand, excels at taking the ball away. He perennially ranks among the league's interception leaders, but he has also produced six forced fumbles and five defensive touchdowns. While Samuel's aforementioned instincts, awareness and anticipation certainly stands out, it is his ability to snatch the ball in flight that sets him apart from others. He rarely drops a potential interception and his capacity to convert those quarterback mistakes into turnovers makes him invaluable in the backend.
Tackling is a lost art in the NFL, particularly at the cornerback position. Elite cover men rarely embrace the physicality required to get runners down on the perimeter, and that weakens the overall effectiveness of the defense. Asomugha has ranked as a good tackler throughout his career, but seemingly took a step backward in 2011. He routinely missed runners in the open field, and these gaffes led to big gains for the opposition. Just check out the video of Victor Cruz's 74-yard touchdown to your right.
Asomugha certainly could regain his tackling prowess this season, but it is hard to give him favorable reviews based on the last year's tape.
Samuel has never been recognized for his toughness on the edge, and for good reason: He is an ankle biter who avoids heavy contact with bruising runners. Although he will throw his body into the fray, he is certainly not a textbook tackler and the questionable technique leads to misses in space. Granted, Samuel is not paid big bucks to act as a quasi-linebacker on the perimeter, but he needs to improve in this aspect to solidify his overall game.
Asomugha is one of the best bump-and-run corners in the game, but some of the conversation regarding his ability to shut down half of the field has been overblown in my opinion. In Oakland, he played extensively at right cornerback, placing him on the quarterback's blind side (the overwhelming majority of quarterbacks are right-handed) and routinely against the opponent's "X" receiver. With most teams placing their No. 1 receiver at flanker, Asomugha didn't match up consistently against the opponent's top target. To his credit, Asomugha took on more responsibility during his final season as a Raider (he would occasionally flip sides or play in the slot to take on the best wideout) and moved around during his debut season in Philadelphia to show his versatility in coverage. However, he didn't snuff out elite receivers like many anticipated heading into last season, and quarterbacks didn't necessarily shy away from throwing the ball in his direction.
Samuel, on the other hand, is not regarded as a shutdown corner, but opponents refuse to attack him relentlessly out of respect for his playmaking skills. Part of this respect comes from Samuel's exceptional ability to anticipate and jump routes. Let's take a closer a look at how Samuel strikes fear in the minds of quarterbacks.
Below I have diagnosed another play from the Eagles' Week 10 game against the Cardinals. (John Skelton made a couple bad decisions that day and both Asomugha and Samuel made him pay. Though the Cardinals did win the game.) Samuel is aligned at the top of screen against Larry Fitzgerald in man coverage:
Samuel is playing close attention to his hash-split rules, which provides indicators on potential routes based on the receiver's alignment in relation to where the ball is placed on the field. The ball is on the near hash, but Fitzgerald is aligned on the bottom of the numbers with plenty room to the sideline. Samuel knows by this alignment that an out-breaking route is on the horizon, so he sets up with outside leverage on Fitzgerald:
When Fitzgerald makes his break to the outside, Samuel trusts his instincts to jump the route:
Samuel picked off that pass and took it the other way for six.
Samuel's high football IQ and fabulous instincts are underappreciated by the general public, but they are exactly why quarterbacks are afraid to throw balls in the playmaker's direction.
Reid decided to break up a talented Philadelphia Eagles' secondary because he wanted to become an aggressive man-to-man cover team. However, the decision to trade away Samuel is one that the Eagles' head coach could regret. Samuel is not only a superior player in this comparison, but I believe he is one of the best corners in the NFL and his playmaking ability will not be easily replaced.
While Asomugha might be a better fit in the Eagles' revamped scheme, the ability to generate turnovers is the biggest deciding factor in football -- championship defenses are built upon that premise. With the Eagles' harboring title aspirations in 2012, trading Samuel makes it tougher for them to realize their dreams.