FOXBOROUGH - Ty Law had already established himself as a perennial Pro Bowl selection when Asante Samuel joined the Patriots as a fourth-round draft choice in 2003. Samuel hoped to one day join those lofty ranks, and Law now has a message for his former teammate.
Welcome to the club.
"I think Asante has all the makings of an All-Pro cornerback," Law said from Kansas City, where he's in his second season with the Chiefs. "He is young and he has something that you can't teach - instincts. He has great ball skills, as well."
Samuel, who tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions last season, has stayed on a roll this year. Entering Sunday's battle of unbeaten teams between the Patriots (5-0) and Cowboys (5-0), he has recorded an interception in each of the last three games and - extending to the 2006 season - has 12 interceptions in his last 14 regular-season and playoff contests.
The impact Samuel is having was apparent in last Sunday's win over the Browns, as Cleveland - under former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel - seldom challenged him. Samuel got his hands on a Derek Anderson first-quarter pass that resulted in an end-zone interception for Junior Seau, and on the next series gathered in a tipped ball for an interception that set up the Patriots' first touchdown.
If Samuel intercepts a pass in Dallas - where at times he could be matched up with receiver Terrell Owens - he will tie the Patriots' record for most consecutive games (four) with a pick set by Mike Haynes in 1976.
To Law, who has 51 career interceptions on his résumé, it all comes back to instincts.
"It's something you just pick up and develop over time; it's hard to explain," he said. "Either you got it or you don't. Asante has it. And I think the ability to anticipate things helps that, as well."
Former Patriots defensive back Otis Smith, who served as an assistant secondary coach with the Patriots last year, believes Samuel mirrors Law in many ways.
"He's very instinctive and knows how to read routes and quarterbacks - and knows when to break, and how to break, on the ball. He kind of reminds me of Ty in that sense, knowing when to take chances and when not to take chances," Smith said. "There is no doubt in my mind that 32 teams would like to have him on the left corner right now, from what he did last year and what he's continued to do this year."
If there is a main difference between Law and Samuel, it is their physical stature. Law is 5 feet 11 inches, 200 pounds, and remains a sturdy force against the run. Samuel is 5-10, 185, and while he's not as strong a run-stopper as Law, it's an area he's improved upon in recent years.
Yet when it comes to both players' ball-hawking skills, there is no disagreement from former defensive back Rod Woodson, who knows a thing or two about intercepting passes. Woodson ranks third on the NFL's all-time interceptions list with 71, and he believes Samuel has that instinctive gene that Law is also blessed with.
"You can't teach instincts; it is something that over time you become better at it, especially in the National Football League," said Woodson, now an analyst for The NFL Network. "Over his young career so far, he's become better at understanding the offenses he's going to face, the receivers he's going to face, and what he can do within the system within the context of the game.
"Sometimes you can jump a route, sometimes you shouldn't. You can see he understands that more today than he did as a rookie. I think what Asante also proved last year is that he can make the big plays in critical situations, the plays that can turn the tide for your football team. You always want to have a player like that on your defense, and Asante is one of them."
So where does Samuel, who through five games has proved that his stellar 2006 campaign was no fluke, rank among the NFL's cornerback crop?
"He's definitely in the top five," Woodson said. "And I think he's growing, so he's getting better and better. When I watch him on film, I not only see the ability to make big plays, but I also see something that is rare, the ability of a corner to cover anyone at any point of the field.
"What I like about Asante is that he's fundamentally sound. What you see today from some cornerbacks are bad eyes and bad hips, and those are tendencies that are not positive for a player at that position. You normally want the least amount of wasted movement for a corner, because they're reacting to what they see, the receivers making moves. He understands the reactions and plays the angles well. The way you get interceptions is to be in the right position, and take the right angle to the interception point."
Samuel just missed the cut last year to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl, as Denver's Champ Bailey, Baltimore's Chris McAlister, and Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis were voted the top corners. In the NFC, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber, Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall, Philadelphia's Lito Sheppard, and San Francisco's Walt Harris were selected.
Samuel felt he played at a Pro Bowl level last year, and that contributed to him staying away from the Patriots for one month in training camp after being restricted from hitting the free agent market by the franchise tag. The Patriots agreed not to place the franchise or transition tags on him next year if he plays in 60 percent of the team's snaps, or the Patriots win 12 or more games.
"At the time, everybody was saying, 'Can he do it again?' I'm not sure you could have found somebody outside of myself who knew he would," said Alonzo Shavers, Samuel's agent. "To this point, he's doing it again. I think critics who didn't understand his decision might now have some more respect for what he was thinking."
Throughout the process, Samuel kept in contact with Law. They still talk from time to time, and Law is happy to see how far his former teammate has come.
Said Law: "I'm proud of him and for him."