To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.
Total Score: 67/100
Last year’s rank: 15
Player Grade: 62/100
Teams he is starter: 22 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 5 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +4
2014 will mark a very important season for Sam Baker’s career. After six mostly impressive seasons with the Falcons, Baker is up against the wall.
Throughout the first four years of his career, Baker battled injuries and inconsistency. But the Falcons continued to show faith in their 2008 first-round pick.
Baker managed to have a breakthrough season at the right time, in a contract year in 2012. That landed him a $41 million contract the following offseason, but Baker rewarded the Falcons’ loyalty with another injury-plagued and poor 2013 season.
Now, Baker will have to bounce back and play at a level comparable to his 2012 level or else face the proposition of finding a new team with Falcons rookie Jake Matthews looking over his shoulder.
Baker carries a cap hit of $7.3 million in 2015, which is pretty pricey for an underachieving left tackle, especially if you have a potential upgrade already on the roster in Matthews. The Falcons would have to eat $9.2 million in dead money if they release him next year, seemingly protecting Baker for another year. However, if the Falcons opted to cut Baker as a post-June 1st release, they would only have to take on $2.8 million in dead money meaning the team could reap $4.5 million in savings.
That’s a pretty big carrot to dangle in front of the Falcons, and thus it’s paramount that Baker plays well in 2014. Frankly considering Baker’s history, his play is going to have to be outstanding to merit being kept on given those potential cap savings.
Injuries have been a big part of Baker’s inconsistency, but it has also hurt Baker that he has never been an ideal fit in the team’s blocking scheme over the years. The Falcons have primarily been a man-blocking team that relied on their individual blockers to create space and push in the run game. Baker spent the entirety of his collegiate career at Southern California playing in a zone-blocking scheme, where it was movement that was there to create space.
Baker struggled with the man-blocking system for the first four years of his career, but things started to click in 2012. It’s possible that with additions like Matthews and Asamoah the Falcons could feature a bit more zone-blocking this year, as that style could benefit them as well. If so, then Baker has an opportunity to stop being the liability in the run game that he was his first four years with the team.
But more importantly, Baker’s status will depend heavily on his ability in pass protection. As the team’s left tackle and quarterback Matt Ryan’s blindside protector, those have been his primary duties. Providing hope that Baker could be improved there is the fact that he did a solid job containing the likes of Greg Hardy in the Falcons Week 9 loss to the Carolina Panthers last season.
Basically Baker needs to have several games at that level this year to maintain his hold on a roster spot. It’s not just his future in Atlanta that is at jeopardy, but also his future in the league. An injury-prone, underachieving left tackle that has only played left tackle in the NFL is not that valuable a commodity elsewhere, except on teams that are bottom feeders.
Baker is capable of stepping up his play, but it’s just a matter of will he actually do so. If his body of work over the past six years are what we are judging by, then there isn’t much room for optimism.