Baker at a Crossroads
Sam Baker has had an up and down career thus far with the Falcons. During the early part of the 2009 season, Baker was very good. Then he hurt his ankle halfway through that season and essentially was questionable on the team’s injury report the remainder of the year, and had his share of struggles. With a healthy campaign in 2010, he should have bounced back and put together a strong effort. That was not the case.
Baker is in a position this year where he needs to put together a strong season or else the Falcons will be in a position where they have to start making a change at the position. Left tackle is one of the four premium positions in the NFL, along with quarterback, pass rusher, and cornerback. Finding quality at the position often takes a significant investment. Twenty two of the starting 32 left tackles in the league last year were first or second round picks, with half of the total coming from first round picks alone. And the teams that did not have those higher picks at the position often paid for it, with nearly half of them using draft picks on left tackles this past April.
Baker has two more years left on his contract, and he’s very likely to play out his deal here in Atlanta. But if he does not improve in 2011, it’s very likely that he’ll have some competition come 2012. It will likely be a situation where the team will try and add someone next off-season to push Baker next summer or at least an insurance policy if they choose not to keep him the following year.
Baker has some limitations as far as his potential goes at the position. He’s not the biggest or strongest guy coupled with short arms means his technique, footwork, and hand use has to be that much better than guys that are more physically blessed.
And these limitations become even more apparent in the running game because for much of the past two seasons, Baker has contributed next to nothing in that area. And more so than his pass protection inconsistencies, that is the most glaring weakness that he has. On a team that wants to be a balanced offensive attack and be able to wear down opponents, you need all five blockers up front pulling their weight.
This makes Baker a poor fit for the scheme. At Southern California, they ran a zone-heavy blocking scheme that was much more akin to what the Falcons run under Alex Gibbs and Jim Mora from 2004-06. That’s why one of Pete Carroll’s first hires was Gibbs when he took over the Seahawks job, and thus why Tom Cable (an assistant under Mora and Gibbs) is now their offensive line coach in Seattle.
Baker would have fit right at home on those Falcon lines, where there was much less emphasis on the individual moving his man off the ball and more on getting lateral and creating creases for the team’s quicker backs like Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood.
But now with the blocking scheme introduced by Paul Boudreau, Mike Mularkey, and Mike Smith, it is much more more man-oriented. With a back like Turner, who takes time to hit the hole and doesn’t move well laterally, you need more downhill road-grading pile movers. Clabo, Dahl, and Mike Johnson are more this type of blocker.
And the blocker that often excels in this type of scheme is exactly that guy that goes high in the draft like a Jake Long or Bryant McKinnie. And if the Falcons are in a situation where they are looking to replace Baker, they will be hard-pressed to find such a player without a first round pick. And that’s why it’s critical for the team’s success this year as well as going forward that Baker steps up his play and starts to do his job.
It’s probably foolish to expect Baker to be able to change his stripes at this point in his career as far as being a true pile mover in the ground game. But any progress there is a step in the right direction. And thusly, he’ll have to make up for that deficiency on the ground by getting better in pass protection. It’s not going to bother the coaching staff or the fan base if Baker is just a mediocre run blocker if he’s performing well in his primary role which is to protect Matt Ryan’s blindside.
He’ll certainly be tested this year. He opens the season against Julius Peppers and Trent Cole. And at the midpoint in the season, he’ll get a huge test against Dwight Freeney. It’ll be the first time the two match up, and I’m sure Freeney’s got a nice big bag of tricks ready for him. And he won’t get a reprieve the following week against Will Smith, a guy that has given him fits in recent seasons. Jared Allen (Week 12) and Mario Williams (Week 13) are also down the pipe. Which doesn’t factor in guys like Chris Clemons, Kyle Vanden Bosh, Aaron Kampman, and potentially Derrick Morgan who aren’t pushovers.
A strong season in 2011 could solidify Baker’s status with the team for the next five or more years. A poor one, and he’ll likely go by the wayside of many of the other Falcons left tackles like Kevin Shaffer, Wayne Gandy, and Quinn Ojinnaka. Prior to those guys the Falcons had a lot of luck with their left tackles with twenty five years where the spot was solidified by Mike Kenn and Bob Whitfield. Here’s hoping that Baker proves himself to be a continuation of that tradition rather than the current one.