A shorter beard isn't the only thing Sam Baker is sporting during this year's offseason OTAs. His back has returned to the health that allowed him to be a three-time All American left tackle at USC.
Baker's experienced back troubles since arriving in the league. He's played in all 16 games in a season just once (2010) since being a first-round pick by the Falcons in 2008. Baker's back troubles kept him out of four games last year. He was a starter for only six games on the season with Will Svitek stepping into the role as the starting left tackle.
So far this offseason, things are good. Baker says his back feels good and he's out doing everything asked of him. He said Wednesday he thought he felt at 100 percent and hasn't had any setbacks thus far.
"It feels good," he said. "I was able to take the offseason and rehab my back. I feel like my back is healthy."
In addition to the work improving his back's health, there's been a lot of change around Baker this offseason. The Falcons used their first two draft picks on offensive linemen, center/guard Peter Konz and tackle Lamar Holmes. Holmes is considered a left tackle prospect and players drafted in the third round are usually more than just projects. There's expected to be competition all over the offensive line and especially at left tackle with Baker, Svitek and Holmes.
Competition is what makes the NFL thrive and Baker is taking it in stride, using it to continue to make him better.
"There's always competition and so you've got to bring it everyday," he said. "It's just going to make us better... There's always (competition), they're always looking to replace somebody. There's always going to be competition in the NFL."
A new offensive scheme is being integrated and along with that comes a new offensive line coach. Pat Hill takes over for the departed Paul Boudreau. Baker's enjoyed his time with the new coach thus far.
"He's really energetic," Baker said. "He knows a lot about the game. He's bringing a lot of new techniques. A lot of new stuff. It's been great so far."
You don't earn All-American honors as a starting member of the Southern California football team without some ability. In Baker, Hill sees a guy he's very familiar with and the required athletic ability to get the job done at the all-important left tackle position.
"Well, he had some injuries," Hill said. "I tell you what, he's got some great athletic ability. I knew Sam out of high school, out of SC, playing against him and watching him. I know the athletic ability is there and I'm excited about working with him."
If Baker can prove his back is back to 100 percent healthy, the Falcons can begin to scratch off "offensive line" as one of their concerns heading into training camp.