Many fans and members of the media alike believed that Thomas Dimitroff had done well when he moved back into the first round to pick up Left Tackle Sam Baker from USC. The idea made complete sense in that Dimitroff elected to find the best protection available for his newly picked face-of-the-franchise quarterback Matt Ryan. After a serious run on left tackles in the 2008 NFL draft, the Falcons top brass traded picks to move up and select Baker. Some felt Baker’s arms were too short, among other critiques, to be a successful, franchise left tackle at the next level. Many of those critics are looking fairly smart in their initial questions of Baker in the NFL. After showing flashes of brilliance, Baker has had two injury riddled and fairly sub par years. The question begs asking if the Falcons left tackle is on the hot seat. Approaching this year’s draft, many believed that the Falcons should go ahead and draft a better LT for the future and move Baker somewhere else. Let the debate begin………
After having a stellar career at the University of Southern California where Baker started for the Trojans for his final 3 years, but the left tackle ran into some injury problems in his rookie year causing him to start only 5 games and play in 8 in 2008. #72 also missed 2 games last year as well. The injuries have been multiple and numerous including concussion, lower back, hip, and ankle. Compare that to the model of consistency in right tackle Tyson Clabo starting every game the last two years, all 32, and that doesn’t help matters much ither. To his credit, Baker did bounce back and miss only 2 games last season when many feared he might be an injury bust. Still, injuries have caused him to miss almost a third of total possible games in just two seasons.
Using the best and most comprehensive football stats website around, ProFootballFocus.com, Sam Baker doesn’t look like the franchise left tackle many hoped he would be, at least not yet. There are several things to understand in these rankings, however. Right tackles usually have easier assignments since they don’t have to protect the quarterback’s blind side and many times draw easier assignments regarding defensive ends, so take that into account when reading the stats.
2008 Campaign (only started 5 games and played 8 )
Overall Comprehensive Tackle Rank – 31st (-5.2 rating) out of 76 total tackles
Pass Blocking – 31st (-1.4)
Run Block – 58th (-3.3)
2009 Season (started 14 games)
Overall Comprehensive Tackle Rank – 55th (-11.7 rating) out of 77 total tackles; ranked 19th when sorted down to only left tackles starting more than 10 games
Pass Blocking – 58th (-7.1 rating)
Run Blocking – 43rd (+0.4 rating)
Penalties – 34th (5 yellow flags)
Sacks – Tied for 30th (5 sacks)
QB Hits – 23rd (4 hits); was highest rated LT of ones who started 10+ games
QB Pressures – 66th (28 pressures)
Tyson Clabo was ranked higher in most categories including overall, run block, pass block, and pressures. Keep in mind the difference between left and right tackles, however. Will Svitek had higher averages in overall, pass block, and run block even though he had roughly about a third of the snaps that Baker did (266 to 855). To be fair, Svitek’s overall and pass block were still in the negative territory, but not as bad as Baker’s. Stats can be very tricky and often times bended to fit agendas, but the trends aren’t very good for Baker in his first two years. He has had cumulative negative ratings in almost every category (overall, pass block, run block), with his one bright spot coming in a slight positive in the run game this season.
A common idea that runs rampant among fans is that teams can simply draft a left tackle in the first round and plug him into be a great franchise LT for the next 12 years. It does happen and the most common recent examples are Joe Thomas, Jake Long, and Ryan Clady. These players have all made the Pro Bowl and been the franchise left tackles they hoped they would become. Those gentlemen were taken pretty high in the draft with Long taken first overall, Thomas taken 3rd overall, and Clady being taken 12th overall. Often times, however, many tackles taken in the 1st round either under perform or are moved to right tackle. For every Thomas, Long, and Clady, there are just as many Jason Smiths, Andre Smiths, Eugene Monroes, and Chris Williams. Tackles who either haven’t lived up to expectations, draft status, or been moved over to right tackle. In fact, several of the tackles selected both before and after Sam Baker in 2008 performed worse and some have been moved to right tackle.
Chris Williams (Bears) – Drafted 14th, moved to RT, and ranked 65th overall
Branden Albert (Chiefs) – Drafted 15th and ranked 64th overall
Gosder Cherilus (Lions) – Drafted 17th, moved to RT, and 43rd overall
Jeff Otah (Panthers) – Drafted 19th, moved to RT, and 40th overall
Sam Baker (Falcons) – Drafted 21st and ranked 55th overall
Duane Brown (Texans) – Drafted 26th and ranked 60th overall
The point is not that the Falcons couldn’t find someone better than Baker in next year’s draft, but that it is pretty unlikely assuming the Birds draft somewhere later in the draft. Left tackles mostly just need more time and can improve over time. Considering the schedule was much tougher in 2009 and it was really like his rookie year, than there are positive reasons to believe that Baker can blossom under OL Coach Boudreau’s guidance. D’Brickashaw Ferguson is a good example here, where he was long considered a bust after taken number 4 overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. After years of bust talk, Ferguson was one of the top 5 ranked tackles, behind only left tackles Joe Thomas and Jake Long. Baker has had his issues for sure and really needs a good year to ease some fears among fans, but to simply cast him aside after only 2 years wouldn’t seem to make too much sense. Throw in the fact that Baker has shown glimpses, and that just moving him to right tackle might not be as easy an option as some think, with them either keeping Clabo there or grooming Garrett Reynolds to take over RT soon.
Stats aside, Baker has missed almost a third of all possible games in just two years due to various injuries, which have been plenty. Granted, the Falcons may not have drafted the next Jake Long to man their left side for the next 10+ years, but Baker’s rankings went down in almost every category. He gave up 5 sacks alone from his side, combined with 28 pressures to rank as one of the worst among all tackles in the NFL. That stat doesn’t even include the tons of throwaways that Matt Ryan did (30, most in the NFL) to avoid even more sacks. Play-calling and schedule definitely made it tougher for Baker and the OL overall, but Baker needs to be showing improvement, not digression. For instance, #72 got absolutely dominated by Tampa Bay in both showings in 2009, and that was before they added Gerald McCoy and Brian Price at DT in this year’s draft. Baker made Stylez White (2.5 sacks in one game) look like the second coming of Reggie White, and one which actually led to the injury of Matt Ryan. If teams feel as though their left tackle is not someone they can build their entire offensive line around, they often will either move them over to the right side or even place them at guard.
The fact that Will Svitek was signed as a backup by Dimitroff and came in to outperform Baker in almost every category speaks volumes. Yes, Svitek only had about a little under a third of the snaps that Baker did, but even that he was close should say something. Baker will get every opportunity to prove he’s worthy of being the Falcons long-term answer at left tackle, but if has another sub par year in 2010, a replacement will be in order. Baker could move to right tackle or even possibly to guard, but with the drafting of RT Garrett Reynolds last year, guard Mike Johnson, and center/guard Joe Hawley this year, the Falcons won’t have a problem going in another direction.
-Is Sam Baker on the Hot Seat?
-What’s your opinion on Baker so far?
-More Time or Seat’s on Fire?
-Should they Move Baker on OL?
-How Long Should #72 Get?
-Can He Ever Stay Healthy for 16 Games?