Asante Samuel carefully painted between the lines.

For the freelancing Eagles cornerback, the steady and patient brushstrokes must have run contrary to his every instinct.

Samuel took part in the Eagles' community playground build last week, and as he helped paint a mural he adhered to the basic guidelines: paint each portion with the labeled color and stay within the lines.

On the football field, however, Samuel doesn't paint by numbers.

He hardly plays press coverage even when the defense calls for it. And his tackling - or lack thereof - defies the very nature of the game. But his bait-and-switch approach has made him one of the NFL's top interception artists, earning him three straight trips to the Pro Bowl.

Some think his play resembles a 2-year-old's scribbling. Others consider it abstract art. But even Samuel's proponents can't deny that his soft coverage and aversion to tackling hurt the Eagles last season, especially in back-to-back losses to the Cowboys at the end of the season.

His critics, meanwhile, continue to pound the 29-year-old like a tackling dummy.

"I don't care about that stuff," Samuel said in between brushstrokes. "I know I go out there and do my job and make it to the Pro Bowl. If you got to say something about a guy that got nine picks and makes it to the Pro Bowl, obviously somebody's not on the right page. Why would I need to argue that?"

When the Eagles signed the free agent to a six-year, $57 million contract two off-seasons ago, the reason was clear: The guy was a playmaker. Coming off a season in which they had a league-worst 11 interceptions, the Eagles felt they addressed a need by signing what coach Andy Reid then called "the best [cornerback] in the business."

If the Eagles were looking solely for an upgrade in the turnover department, they certainly got what they paid for. In the last two seasons, Samuel has recorded 13 regular-season interceptions, including two more in the playoffs. His nine picks last year were tied for most in the NFL and were the most by an Eagle in 27 years.

"You're talking about one pretty sneaky corner out there when it comes to interceptions," Reid said.

But there's more to playing cornerback than making interceptions. While it is rare to find a corner who tackles as well as he covers - Darrelle Revis of the Jets comes to mind - Samuel avoids contact like a supermodel shuns second helpings.

"I don't think too many people got on Deion [Sanders] for not tackling," Reid said, referring to the future Hall of Famer who many consider to be the best cover corner ever. "Deion just came out and said, 'Hey, I get paid to intercept the ball.' He was very open with that. I don't worry too much about that."

There could be extra reason to worry, though, especially in light of the way Dallas exploited Samuel's tendencies. The Cowboys threw a variety of screens at the cornerback, including a bubble screen to Miles Austin that the wide receiver took six yards for a score in the playoffs. It turned a manageable 17-7 second-quarter deficit into a rout.

"I know Asante took a lot of heat for it, but it wasn't all Asante," Reid said. "Asante has also gone out and attacked the issue, like any responsible guy would. He's really put on some strength."

Because of the early-round exit from the playoffs, Samuel said he was able to get a jump start on his off-season conditioning.

Samuel, as he has always done, returned to his home in Miami for off-season workouts. While the majority of Eagles players showed at the NovaCare Complex for various optional workouts, Samuel stayed in South Florida. And for the second straight year, he skipped the second week of organized team activities intended for the entire squad.

The Eagles said Samuel was not present because he had to attend to a personal matter.

"I've been around Asante long enough to know his routine," said Eagles cornerback Ellis Hobbs, Samuel's counterpart in New England and likely again this season. "If you was expecting him to be here, you was a fool. He does what he needs to do. He's worked out whatever it is with the organization. They have a mutual understanding."

Reid was asked last week about the possibility of Samuel's not attending this week's practices.

"He's got a big family," Reid said. "He's got four kids that he takes care of. . . . I think it's always good to be here. But at the same time, he needed those four days. And if that helps for the season, then I'm OK with that."

The Eagles are hoping that a stronger Samuel will improve his tackling and limit the various nicks that have slowed him down. Samuel never publicly made excuses about his injuries last season. But he pointed out last week the neck stinger he suffered in the first Dallas game in November.

"I told the coaches that if you put me back out there I'm not going to be able to tackle," Samuel said.

"He did have the stinger, but I don't remember that [not being able to tackle] part," Reid said. "We would have never put him in there if we thought that was case. I'm not going to put a guy out there at risk."

During minicamp and last week's workouts, Samuel has once again been the most vocal player. Half of what he says prompts laughter, the other half could make almost any coach wince. He also continued to needle a local reporter who has been critical of his play.

"I'm going to be Asante Samuel to the 'T,' " he said.

Samuel, still painting the playground mural, then realized that he painted one cutout the wrong color.

"See what you made me do," he said.

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.