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Samuel to set the bar for cornerbacks

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

HONOLULU – Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning did some recruiting this week at the Pro Bowl.

Really, though, it was more "anti-recruiting."

"I kept telling (New England cornerback) Asante (Samuel), 'Yeah, come play for us,' " Manning said, jokingly, after the NFC defeated the AFC 42-30 in the annual all-star game Sunday at Aloha Stadium. "But I told him if he doesn't sign with us, he needs to go to the NFC."

A year ago at this time, the Patriots coaching staff used the Pro Bowl week to get acquainted with linebacker Adalius Thomas, who the team signed at the beginning of free agency. This year, it's Manning's turn to throw in his two cents, particularly for a player who might change the pay scale for cornerbacks this year.

"Yeah, that would be nice if the Colts were in it, but I don't think they have the money," Samuel said with a sly grin. On Samuel's left shoulder are tattooed the words, "Get Rich To This."

"It's about whatever it is you do to get rich," Samuel said. "If you're a writer, that's what you do to get this. If you're a player, whatever it is."

Under the terms of the one-year tender contract Samuel agreed to before last season, the Patriots can't put the "franchise" tag on him again this year, making him an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

That fact was of keen interest to a number of players in action Sunday. The Denver Broncos' Champ Bailey, once the highest paid cornerback in the league, wants to see what Samuel is offered and accepts. Cornerback Marcus Trufant, who is likely to be franchised by the Seattle Seahawks this month, is interested. Finally, budding star Antonio Cromartie of San Diego, who has the size, speed and skill to be the best of all of them, could be talking to the Chargers about an extension in the next couple of years.

Cromartie, a second-year player who went from backup to leading the NFL with 10 interceptions this season, was the best of the bunch on Sunday. In his first Pro Bowl appearance, he tied a game record with two interceptions. Both came on tipped passes, including one where Cromartie quickly adjusted his hands after St. Louis Rams wide receiver Torry Holt bobbled a throw.

"He's everything they advertise," said Manning, who was intercepted by the 6-foot-2 Cromartie four times last season (three in a regular season loss and once more in a playoff loss). "You see a guy that big with that wingspan and his ability to adjust. He has great ball skills."

As for Trufant, he helped secure the NFC's win by slowing Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards on a deep pass in the final minute of the game, the ball falling incomplete.

"Marcus does a lot of things for us and a lot of things that don't show up in the stats," Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. "A lot of teams just didn't throw at him this season and that allowed other guys to get chances."

When asked if the chance of losing Trufant would be about the same as losing left guard Steve Hutchinson in free agency two years ago, Tatupu gave a worried look that said it all.

"You can tell by my face, I don't have to say anything," Tatupu said.

Still, what happens to Samuel could have a ripple effect on the NFL. A tsunami-like ripple effect.

"I hope those guys set the bar real high," Bailey enthusiastically said. Bailey, 29, has three years left on his contract.

"But no one ever plays out a seven-year deal," he said, obviously hinting at a new deal at some point. "I think Asante and (Trufant), those guys should definitely get $100 million (contracts), probably more. Every team needs premier cornerbacks in this league. They're worth it."

While all this talk about money in the aftermath of a game feels a bit calculated, welcome to the offseason in the NFL. As many people in and around the league will tell you, the offseason is about money. Between free agency, the NFL draft and any other event, everyone is posturing on who and how much should go around.

Like last offseason, when record contracts such as the reported eight-year, $80 million deal the San Francisco 49ers gave Nate Clements or the series of $7 million-per-year deals that went to guards, this year figures to be another spendfest.

During the week, players even joked about it. On Thursday while the AFC practiced, Denver veteran safety John Lynch joked loudly that Samuel was about to get $100 million on his new deal.

On Sunday, Samuel danced the line between playing hard to show off his skills and not getting hurt. On a quick hitch throw by Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck to Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Samuel closed quickly to break up the throw and jostled Fitzgerald. The play was impressive because Samuel, who was forced to play soft coverage because Pro Bowl rules don't allow for bump coverage, closed so fast on the play despite being on the opposite side of where he normally plays.

The other part was that the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Samuel didn't shy from contact against the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Fitzgerald. Samuel could have easily rattled Fitzgerald's cage much harder.

"I kind of eased up on that," Samuel said, following the unwritten creed of the Pro Bowl.

But again, the real show that Samuel and his cornerback brethren are waiting to see is what happens when free agency begins on Feb. 29.

"I don't know how exactly it's going to effect me right now," said Trufant, who said he and the Seahawks are in talks. "But if he gets paid, it's going to help everybody. I don't have a lot of control over what's going to happen right now. That's the business part of it. I'd really like to stay in Seattle, but it's about business."

Said Samuel: "If it's time for me to move on from New England, then it's time to move on."