Falcons’ Asante Samuel wants another big season

Deion Sanders, owner of a Hall of Fame yellow jacket, was on the field after practice this week talking with Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Near the end of his brilliant career, Sanders played for Nolan with the Baltimore Ravens in 2004, and he was at Falcons camp getting info for his NFL Network job.

Asante Samuel walked up from behind and playfully wrapped his arms around Sanders as if to tackle him and then kept walking.

Sanders called out, “Come here old man!” It was a sign of respect for the elder of the Falcons’ secondary.

It also was reality for Samuel, who turned 32 this offseason, and wants one of those jackets that Sanders has in his closet.

Samuel, who’s set to enter his 11th season in the NFL, is one of the better cornerbacks of his era, and a strong finish to his career could push him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“He’s definitely going to be in the Hall of Fame one day,” impressionable rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant said.

Samuel figures he can aid his bid with another strong season.

“I’m looking for one of the biggest years of my career,” Samuel said. “I’m excited about the team and the way things are looking. I’m just going to continue to keep pushing.”

He believes the defense, which faded down the stretch last season and blew leads of 17 and 20 points in the playoffs, can be much improved.

“One of the big things from last year to this year is that we are (coming) together better,” Samuel said. “That’s just making everything better.”

The Falcons picked up Samuel for a late-round draft pick last season from the Philadelphia Eagles. Things turned a little ugly when a murky Internet allegation surfaced that Samuel’s skills were in steep decline.

Samuel showed that his skills were just fine while manning the No. 1 cornerback spot on the left side in 2012.

He played 812 of 1,020 defensive snaps (79.6 percent) and helped lead the group of returning defensive backs — Samuel (five), Thomas DeCoud (six), William Moore (four) and Robert McClain (one) — that amassed 16 interceptions.

Samuel recorded 38 tackles, five interceptions, one touchdown and 18 passes defended. He allowed only 39 completions on 74 targets, according to Stats, LLC.

It was an extremely emotional season for Samuel, who shuttled back and forth to Florida to be with his mother, Christine, who died in January after a long illness.

Samuel wanted to be traded to the Falcons, in part, so that he could be closer to South Florida. He declined several requests to talk about his mother’s passing. Last season, he carried on in his loud and boisterous manner at practices.

Despite the personal problems, he was sturdy in coverage as quarterbacks completed only 52.7 percent of the passes thrown his way.

With the strong season, Samuel became one of 10 cornerbacks to reach 50 career interceptions. He reached that mark in 146 games, according to Stats LLC. Only Detroit’s Lem Barney (1967-77), also a Hall of Fame member (class of 1992), hit the 50-pick mark in fewer games, needing only 114.

The Falcons, who released three of their top five cornerbacks this offseason, are counting on Samuel to maintain his level of play, while also showing rookies Trufant and Robert Alford the ropes.

“You can always learn from a guy like that,” Trufant said. “His instincts are off the charts. He plays the ball so well. I’m just going to take whatever I can from him.”

Alford also plans to try to learn as much as he can from Samuel.

“He’s a veteran,” Alford said. “He’s been in the league 10 years and has bunch of interceptions and a bunch of rings from playing with the New England Patriots. Whenever I talk to Asante, I learn a lot from him.”

Samuel has been impressed with the rookies.

“The young guys are doing a good job,” Samuel said. “They’ve got a lot of ability, and they are learning well. They are good kids, and they are excited about being in the NFL.”

There are those around the league who don’t believe that Samuel is Hall of Fame-worthy and cite the dropped interception in the Super Bowl that would have secured another New England ring and a perfect season.

Samuel hopes he’ll have a chance for redemption.

His case for the Hall of Fame would be stronger if he could help the Falcons win their first Super Bowl ring by continuing to play at a high level and by helping to develop the young cornerbacks.

That would be pretty decent, even for an old man.