It took some time for Chandler Jones to become the recognizable football star he is today.
The Suns’ television broadcast had no problem identifying the Cardinals’ outside linebacker on Tuesday -- putting Jones on screen during a break in the action – but that wasn’t the case early in his career in New England.
“There was a point in time when I was at Celtics games with (Rob Gronkowski), and they’d put Gronkowski’s name on there, and then they were like, ‘Oh, that’s some black guy (next to him),’” Jones said.
The moral of the story? Be patient, Budda Baker.
While the third-year safety sat courtside next to Jones at the Suns game, the announcers did not realize another key member of the defense was in view. But the more Baker plays like he has the past few weeks, the less he will be overlooked in the future.
“His time will come,” Jones said. “Budda doesn’t look like an athlete. He’s a hell of a player, but he’s small. He looks like a baseball player. It’s like, ‘Aw, look at Chandler and his friend.’ And then when he puts his pads on, it’s like, ‘Holy (expletive), this guy is a (expletive) beast.’”
The Cardinals’ secondary has been affected by suspension, injuries and ineffectiveness this season, but the one constant has been Baker. He has accumulated 93 tackles, six passes defended, a forced fumble and fumble recovery, and he’s been particularly noticeable the last two games.
Baker gave up a touchdown to 49ers tight end George Kittle in Week 9 but was otherwise dominant, finishing with 13 tackles, two tackles for loss and three passes defended.
On Sunday against the Buccaneers, Baker had 11 tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection that dropped into the hands of linebacker Jordan Hicks for an interception.
“Honestly, I feel like overall I’ve had a great year,” Baker said. “The last couple of games I’ve been able to go after the ball a little bit. Coach (Vance Joseph) has been putting me in many spots, so teams can’t game-plan for me because they don’t know what position I’m playing.”
Baker is settling into Joseph’s 3-4 defensive scheme and is hoping to get comfortable. Much has been made about inside linebacker Haason Reddick’s chaotic transition through three defensive systems in his three NFL seasons, but Baker has been in the same boat.
Coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher were here his rookie season, followed by Steve Wilks and Al Holcomb in 2018. Now it’s coach Kliff Kingsbury and Joseph asking new things of Baker.
“I’m starting to make more plays, and hopefully next year the sky is the limit, because personally I’ve never been in a defense for two years,” Baker said. “Hopefully these guys are here to stay for awhile.”
Baker has a unique skillset, capable of using his speed to play free safety, his cover skills to play nickelback and his tackling ability to play in the box. The Cardinals have been using him as a chess piece, particularly of late.
“You can see a real comfort level in this system,” Kingsbury said. “He’s all over the field. He’s relentless in his play and his passion for it. He’s not the most vocal guy, but it shows up on tape. Everybody knows what he’s about by just turning that tape on and the way he’s flying around the field and throwing his body in there.”
Jones loves the tenacity and the motor that Baker displays.
“He might be pound-for-pound the toughest person on the team,” Jones said. “You can see it in his play. He’s going out there diving, he’s tackling people, he’s throwing his body around. There are plays when he is literally blitzing and then making tackles 50 yards down the field the other way. Things like that, people don’t do. You don’t see that on film, but I see it when I’m watching film. Every time, it’s Budda.”
The Cardinals don’t have a bunch of clear-cut young building blocks on defense, but Baker looks like a keeper. Even though he acts like a grizzled veteran already, he’s only 23. Baker is excited about the trajectory of the franchise.
“It’s a young core and we’ve got a rookie quarterback (Kyler Murray) playing great football,” Baker said. “He’s only going to get better, and we’ve got a lot of draft picks who are starting right now and playing good ball. The next few years on, the sky is the limit.”
Baker is a self-described homebody and his lack of flash may contribute to his relative anonymity. But there is one thing he’s known for: flipping up from his back to his feet after big plays.
Maybe that’s the type of signature move that will get Baker noticed around town in the future. Either way, he’s already developed quite the reputation with the Cardinals.
“He’s a lot better athlete than I am,” Kingsbury said. “I would hurt myself trying to do that. He’s got a lot of juice. That’s how he carries himself in practice, in the weight room. Everything he does has a certain level of intensity that all of our players and coaches appreciate.”
Images from practice at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center