Asante Samuel leaves Falcons with class

Maybe Asante Samuel didn’t want to have anything to do with the media, but he kept it classy.

As the 2013 season progressed and the veteran cornerback fell deeper and deeper into obscurity in Atlanta, he never publicly complained about losing his starting role. He never boasted about being one of the best pick-six guys of all time. He never showed any animosity toward the guy who supplanted him, rookie cornerback Robert Alford.

In fact, Alford was the first to rave about how Samuel offered him guidance throughout the season, giving him pointers about how to play the position. With Alford and fellow rookie Desmond Trufant in position to thrive as the Falcons’ cornerback tandem of the future, there simply was no room for Samuel to finish out playing "two or three" more years, as he stated as his goal.

Samuel, 33, was one of two veteran defensive players released by the Falcons on Wednesday. The other was 30-year-old linebacker Stephen Nicholas, arguably the nicest guy in the locker room and the team’s leading tackler in 2012. The moves saved the Falcons $6.5 million in cap space for 2014.

Both players become free agents immediately due to their years of service. They don't have to wait until the official start of free agency (March 11 after 4 p.m. ET) to sign with another team.

Not to diminish Nicholas’ accomplishments during his seven seasons with the Falcons, but Samuel deserves credit for playing at a high level for such a long time. The 11-year veteran has been a four-time Pro Bowl pick and currently stands fourth among all active players in career interceptions with 51, behind Ed Reed (64), Charles Woodson (56), and Champ Bailey (52).

Samuel still is the only player in NFL history to register at least one interception return for a touchdown in each of his first six seasons. And he’s even picked off the Manning brothers -- Peyton and Eli -- eight times in his career.

Samuel was a fourth-round pick of the Patriots back in 2003, when new Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli was New England’s vice president of player personnel. Pioli watched Samuel evolve into a key member of two Super Bowl-winning teams.

The Falcons were hoping for the same type of effect when they signed Samuel in 2012. He actually had five interceptions that year, including one returned 79 yards for a score, as the Falcons finished 13-3. But it didn’t translate into him helping them to the Super Bowl.

Some folks might point to Samuel’s shortcomings, such as his lack of tackling and tendency to gamble. But he still has earned respect around the league.

If a player such as Alford can grow to be a better player simply by listening to some words of encouragement from Samuel, then Samuel’s impact will be felt around the Falcons’ facility for years to come.