Jersey number 36 has had trouble keeping a long-term relationship of late with the Cardinals.
Safety Tony Jefferson originally had the number, before switching to 22. Linebacker Deone Bucannon went from 36 to 20. Now safety Budda Baker has swapped 36 for 32 – leaving the man who loves No. 36, safety D.J. Swearinger Sr., representing the way he has always wanted.
“It’s important to me because it’s part of my family legacy, part of my legacy,” Swearinger said after a recent OTA. “It’s what I have worn since 2003, so it is a part of my name.”
That’s not totally true. Swearinger briefly wore No. 35 at the end of last season, when the Cardinals claimed him off waivers on Christmas following a surprising released from the Redskins. But Swearinger had his eye on 36, and knew Baker was wearing it.
That it turned out to be the Cardinals’ two starting safeties talking about potential number changes was fitting. Baker spent last year playing a nickel/safety/linebacker mashup under coach Steve Wilks, with veterans Antoine Bethea and Tre Boston working the back end. Now, Baker returns to a more traditional playmaking role at the position, one envisioned for him when he was first drafted, in the mold of former safety Tyrann Mathieu.
Mathieu happened to wear No. 32, but that isn’t what enticed Baker to change. It was Baker’s own history – and Swearinger.
Swearinger is in his second tour with the Cardinals, signing to the practice squad back in 2015 after a rough start to the career for the one-time second-round draft pick. He played a role on the team that reached the NFC Championship and was impressive in 2016 before leaving for a lucrative free-agent deal in Washington in 2017.
“He’s football smart,” Baker said. “You can tell he’s been there, done that.”
Swearinger’s passion and emotion can leave a mark. Washington cut him because of some pointed public comments he made about coaching decisions. But he brings an intensity the Cardinals think can help as they try to overhaul from a 3-13 season.
“You’ve got to be passionate about this job no matter what the record was last year,” Swearinger said. “The passion is what drives you, the love for the game is what drives you to want to be the best and want to win. I think me being on the 2015 team and how we almost won here, I can give some of that experience to the guys.”
One day last week, Swearinger wore to work his 2015 NFC West championship hat – just as a reminder and heads-up to the rest of the locker room what can be accomplished.
“Outside of being a guy who sets the tone for us, he’s also the quarterback of the back end,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said on the Coach’s Chronicle podcast. “He’s a very intelligent football player. It gets overlooked sometimes because of his emotional outbursts but as far as his football IQ, it’s very high.”
Swearinger definitely was thinking hard about what number he was wearing – and what he might wear.
Baker reached a Pro Bowl wearing No. 36. He was the 36th overall pick in the 2017 draft. There were reasons to stick with his initial numeral.
“I asked him about it,” said Swearinger, who was the Cardinal wearing 36 prior to Baker. “He was being stingy at first.”
Baker still has the number 32 in his Twitter handle. It was his jersey number from all the way back in his pee wee days, through middle school, high school and college.
“I thought it’d be a good time for me to get back to my usual number,” Baker said, acknowledging that Swearinger “definitely leaned on me a little bit.”
Swearinger indeed gave his pitch, telling Baker he needed to return to his “old self” and go back to the number he’d had his whole life. That, in turn, opened the door for the Swearinger of yesteryear, jersey-wise.
“We worked out a little deal,” Swearinger said with a smile, “and made that happen.”
Images from Tuesday afternoon's offseason work