When Sam Baker was drafted in 2008 in the first round, there were visions of the left tackle from USC serving as the bodyguard for his new teammate from the same round, QB Matt Ryan, for a decade or longer. That's the hope for every left tackle, particularly those taken in the top round.
Baker's career arc through Atlanta hasn't exactly followed the visions from draft day. He played well as a rookie, but was limited to only eight games. In 2009 he started 14 games and again played well. The last two seasons Baker's battled through injuries and while his play wasn't where it should be, Baker continued to do what he could to get onto the field. Head coach Mike Smith said earlier this week he's been impressed with Baker's resiliency in fighting through the injuries in previous seasons, some of which weren't public.
"He's had a lot of injuries, and he's fought through them," Smith said. "Some of the injuries were public and some of the injuries weren't as well known, but he's a guy that's shown a lot of resiliency playing his best football this year."
The play of Baker this season is one of the quietest stories around the Falcons. After a few seasons of struggles, the left tackle is playing a very solid brand of football and his best game of the season perhaps came in last week's 34-0 win over the Giants.
According to advanced stats from ProFootballFocus.com, Baker was the highest-graded offensive lineman against the Giants and a pass rush Smith has described as one of the best in the league. In 68 offensive snaps, Baker gave up only one QB hurry, against the likes ofJason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora. Baker has graded positively (using PFF's analysis) in three straight games and has only graded worse than -1.0 twice.
This year is a step up from years past for Baker. Last season in only nine games, he recorded a grade of -1.0 or worse four times. In 2010 he recorded eight games from the 16-game regular season where he graded at -1.0 or worse.
This season Baker has been a revelation, showing the trust placed on him by the coaching staff and franchise was worth it. Now healthy, he's playing like the first-round tackle he was drafted to be.
"He's been as healthy as he's ever been," Smith said. "He spent a whole lot of time in the offseason working on getting his body feeling right. He had some things that he had to really work on and he did a really nice job. It's paid off for him. He's protecting our backs very well."