Player: Budda Baker
NFL Draft: 2nd round, 36th overall pick (from Chicago via trade)
Pick rationale: The Arizona Cardinals began Friday evening in possession of the 45th overall selection, but the organization didn’t hold onto the selection for long. Instead, Cardinals’ general manager Steve Keim took a draft-day gamble and surrendered Arizona’s second round, fourth round and sixth round selections as well as the team’s 2018 fourth round pick to the Chicago Bears in order to move up nine slots and secure the right to select Washington’s Baker with the 36th overall pick.
After losing safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger to free agency this offseason, the Cardinals added veteran safety Antoine Bethea in an effort to offset their losses. Nevertheless, entering the draft, Arizona still felt a need to add talent in its defensive backfield, and the decision to draft Baker suggests Keim and Co. are in win-now mode.
On Thursday evening, Arizona chose Temple linebacker Haason Reddick with the 13th overall pick in the first round, and spent the next 24 hours touting the versatility Reddick –who can play both inside and outside– will bring to the table. On Friday night, Arizona again prioritized versatility and schematic flexibility, as the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Baker can play either safety slot or slide down into the box and play in the slot as a nickel corner.
Though they play with different styles, Baker’s skill set is somewhat reminiscent of current Cardinals’ safety Tyrann Mathieu‘s, because both are undersized defensive backs with elite athleticism who have the ability to change the game on any given play. Though Baker wasn’t necessarily the same type of ballhawk at the college level that Mathieu was, he was a lockdown defender in coverage who showcased excellent closing speed and isn’t afraid to move into the box and lay the hammer.
The addition of Baker and the decision to give up four picks to select him is actually very easy to rationalize for the Cardinals’ front office. If Arizona is serious about making a run at a Super Bowl with its current roster construction, and all signs lead us to believe they are, then Baker is the type of draft pick who can make an immediate impact. Baker is probably more prepared to play at the next level than Reddick, and though Reddick has a higher overall ceiling than Baker because of his frame and explosiveness, Baker still presented the Cardinals with a value proposition at pick No. 36 that was too good to pass up.
Baker’s ceiling: There’s no reason that Baker’s athleticism can’t help him become one of the leading safeties in the NFL and one of the more versatile defensive backs in the league as well, especially if his frame holds up over the long haul. While Baker certainly has some deficiencies due to his size that make him an exploitable matchup for certain tight ends and bigger-bodied wide receivers, he’s the type of athlete who can thrive in a scheme that plays to his strengths and puts him in the most favorable matchups possible. Though we don’t believe Baker will have the type of early impact in his NFL career that Mathieu enjoyed, he does have the ability to play in the slot as a cornerback and rotate into the box as a run-stopper which has the potential to make him a three-down player relatively quickly. Is Baker going to be a Pro Bowl-caliber safety? It’s too early to say that given the fact we don’t know exactly where Arizona wants to use him and how it wants to use him defensively, but he does have agility, speed and coverage skills that are on par with players who often go in the first round.
Baker’s floor: Our greatest concern with Baker is how his frame will hold up over a few seasons in the NFL. While Baker has the tenacity and mentality to play in the box on a consistent basis, how will a sub-200 pound athlete hold up in a league that requires safeties to be run-stoppers? If Baker is consistently on the shelf with injuries or doesn’t have the strength to play strong safety, he could still find a way to be a serviceable defensive back in the NFL, but the qualities teams can typically exploit in players with slighter builds will become increasingly obvious for Baker’s opponents. Baker’s floor is probably as a rotational safety who makes a difference on third downs early in his career, but we think he’s too good of an athlete for the Cardinals to not find a handful of other ways to make use of him.
Baker’s immediate fit: We love the idea of Baker joining Arizona’s defense in 2017 because Cardinals’ defensive coordinator James Bettcher can use Baker and Mathieu as interchangeable pieces and play to their particular strengths on various downs and distances and in different personnel packages. Baker is an obvious fit for the Cardinals’ nickel package, and he’s the type of player who should help Arizona recover quicker than it anticipated from the loss of Jefferson provided he’s able to stay healthy. Baker isn’t going to be as independent of a tackler as Jefferson was, but he’s got better quick-twitch athleticism and more range than Jefferson showed. The obvious question is whether the Cardinals want Baker to take over in the slot so they can move Mathieu back to the safety level, or if the selection of Baker was made to pair him with Bethea and give the Cardinals a rangy athlete who gives teams fits with his closing speed? Either way, we like the fit and we think Baker has a chance to make a more meaningful impact as a rookie than the Cardinals’ first round selection Haason Reddick does.