The previous safety we studied was more of a backed-off center fielder in Utah's Marcus Williams, so let's provide some contrast with one of the faster safeties that can seemingly play at any spot he's lined up at as a safety.
Budda Baker, the star defensive back who helped lead Washington to the NCAA playoffs, decided to forego his senior year for the 2017 NFL draft. He's a much smaller safety than much of his competition as he stands at 5-10, 195. That's what scares scouts away from making him a surefire first-round pick as safeties in today's NFL go up against bigger-bodied receivers and tight ends.
Aside from his size, Baker checks off almost all the traits that are sought of a safety. He covers well in space, covers receivers in man schemes, blitzes off the edge and is fast doing everything he does. His 40 yard dash time was fourth best among safeties with a 4.45 time, while he also finished fourth in the three cone drill. His best event was the 20 yard shuttle in which he posted the best time with a 4.08.
Baker doesn't just have straight-line speed. He combines it with some of the best quickness you'll see in this draft. He changes direction on a dime and isn't lost with simple double moves.
Let's get to the tape:
GOOD IN SPACE
When Baker is playing zone he is a threat to be in one spot while also covering another. When his team went up against Alabama in the NCAA playoffs, he was placed all over the field to keep their offense from locking in on what he's trying to do.
Watch how he runs up to play the flat but turns to cut underneath O.J. Howard's corner route:
Baker's footwork is up there with the best in the draft class. Take note of how he never lets his feet cross as he stops and turns away from the quarterback running to the spot and almost making the interception.
Much of Baker's tape has him playing closer to the line of scrimmage, but each time he is assigned to a zone he does a great job moving in space.
SOLID IN MAN COVERAGE
What multiplies Baker's importance in a defense is how he plays in man coverage as well as zone. When Baker lines up with a receiver he runs well and turns sharply with their routes. His ability to smother receivers in the slot creates tight windows and his ability to burst in short spaces give him solid opportunities to make plays on the ball.
Watch how he does exactly that and nabs an interception:
Baker knows his asset is in his speed and quickness and not in strength, which is why he will play off receivers and look to not engage with his hands until the player is trying to run their routes down the field.
That style really worked for him at Washington and allowed him to be more aggressive against the pass. Baker would be running from one part of the field to the other and do a good job adjusting to the body language of his opponents and making good decisions to jump the pass:
It turned out that Baker's first foot touched the edge of the sideline on this play but his play is still noteworthy. Baker has good situational and spatial awareness on the field and this play also highlights this.
Notice the field markers that show it's a third and five situation. Baker does a great job letting the route develop as the receiver passes the marker and sets up. He then realizes this is the receiver's route and he can commit to cutting off the pass.
When Baker is playing man coverage he can be just as effective covering slot receivers as cornerbacks with the ball skills to match. These are assets in coverage that are going to attract teams to override his size disadvantages.
EFFECTIVE OFF THE EDGE
Because Baker often plays in the box and up on the slot, Washington called on him to blitz the quarterback and his speed would cause issues in the backfield.
Cornerbacks are often overlooked by pass protection schemes when they are lined up with receivers. Safeties and defensive backs that rush often have to commit to showing their blitz in order to get in position to bring heat on the quarterback.
Baker shows he can line up in position to cover receivers but still get to the quarterback quickly if he comes off the line. Watch how he gets to the quarterback on this sack:
Baker was proficient in how he would come off the edge, which led to Washington asking him to do it a lot. He would pressure even the most mobile of quarterbacks without selling out and being juked out his shoes. He would even do so to stop the run and would make plays against running backs.
This is another notch in Baker's versatility belt.
PROBLEMS AGAINST SIZE
But let's not understate how much of a liability Baker's height can be in the NFL. He will go up against receivers like Dez Bryant, AJ Green and Julio Jones who not only could box him out with their taller bodies but also out-jump him in space.
Just look at one of the examples when Baker got beat against Stanford:
And it's not about a lack of effort, skill or training on his part, he's just not big enough to contest well thrown jump balls against taller players. He even contests this ball as well as he possibly could, creating an extremely window for the ball to reach its target.
That's an unfortunate problem, but a reality that whatever team selects Baker will have to accept.
Baker will most likely be available in the end of the first round when the Steelers are available. It would be a move that could have both an immediate impact and a long-term significance to the defense.
His talents make him a possible talent to plug and play in the slot that can operate as a triple threat to play man coverage on quicker receivers, drop back in zone and bait poor passes or blitz off the edge. All three of these threats would be of value in the Steelers scheme and could help solidify their secondary for years to come if Baker's success at Washington translates to the NFL.
Analyzing his tape shows that Baker is an aggressive player that is willing to sacrifice his body in order to make plays and can run with the best of athletes in their underneath routes. His speed also should allow him to run with deep threat receivers and quickly come up to tackle shorter underneath routes when he's sitting back in deeper zones.
Baker is considered at best as a late first round prospect and at worst a middle second round pick. His speed, ball skills and versatility will attract teams and could plug in interestingly as a double with Sean Davis in the secondary after Mike Mitchell starts to age out of the starting role.
What would make it an interesting investment is how both Davis and Baker would be capable of playing both deep and underneath routes. Baker's a hair faster than Davis, running his 40 yard dash literally a hundredth of a second faster than Davis did last year. But Davis is three inches taller, considerably stronger and graded out quicker in the cone drill and 20 yard shuttle.
Baker may be a viable option that gives the Steelers two versatile players that can either play deep or in the box. If the top prospects at either linebacker position that fit the bill of first round talent are off the board, expect Baker to be a player the Steelers consider.
His speed and cover skills would save the Steelers from investing into the cornerback position, while his versatility could give them the long-term plan at safety.
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