Budda Baker is just happy to be here.
Not in the NFL. That was always going to happen. But literally here, in Tempe in the offseason. The second-year safety wasn’t at this time last year, forced to stay away under the former rule that hindered players with late graduating classes.
Now he’s able to build relationships in the offseason. Meet new players. And take up his new role, which is much like his college role – and the role inhabited by his former Cardinals teammate.
“When you look at Budda and the positions we are asking him to play, I go back to college and he was playing the slot,” defensive backs coach David Merritt said. “He was very successful and he shot down a lot of planes, is what I like to say. We have him again playing in the slot, like what Honey Badger did for them.”
It isn’t the first time Baker has been compared to Tyrann Mathieu, who was released in March when he declined a paycut. As he has done repeatedly, Baker stiff-arms the notion.
“Ty was a great player, but then again, I always tell people, ‘Tyrann is Tyrann and Budda is Budda,’ ” Baker said. “At the end of the day, I’m going to be trying to make plays.”
Even with Mathieu around last season, Baker stood out. Mostly it was on special teams – he made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer – but he had some special moments on defense. The Cardinals’ new staff is expecting that to grow exponentially.
“(Last year) was always what I pictured in my head even though I wasn’t playing,” Baker said. “It was, ‘Once you get on the field, the defense wasn’t going to miss a step and you’re going to make a lot of plays.’ Once I had the opportunity, it was new to some other people, ‘Oh, this rookie is making plays,’ but then again, I already knew what was going to happen.”
Merritt coached for a decade with the New York Giants, and for a few years had a player with Cardinals’ ties playing the slot/safety role Baker now gets – Antrel Rolle, who was a first-round pick of the Cardinals in 2005 and was a starter on the Super Bowl team (and won a Super Bowl with the Giants.)
Baker “is kind of in that same position,” Merritt said. When Baker is away from the facility, Merritt said, he not only texts questions but sends accompanying video from his iPad of practice reps, looking for clarification or correction.
“With that type of attitude, being a sponge, only helps the process,” Merritt said.
There was one week Baker wasn’t able to be around the team this spring. His older brother, Robert, was murdered in Baker’s hometown of Seattle. The two communicated almost daily, and when Baker was drafted, he had no bigger cheerleader than Robert.
Crushed, Baker went home.
“It definitely made me want to take a step back from football and be with my family, which I did,” Baker said. “But at the end of the day, I knew my brother would want me here, to be with my teammates, play football, because he was so proud of me.
“I know for a fact he’d want me to be in Arizona playing football. So that’s where I am at.”
Baker’s special teams role will likely shrink, given his importance on defense, but he said he told the coaches he’s available for that part of the game whenever they need him. It’s possible the Cardinals could add to safety depth – veteran free agent Tre Boston is reportedly visiting – but Baker will remain an important cog.
Merritt said Baker will be the one often communicating for the back end of the defense, making him vital to the Cardinals’ success.
No longer is he the rookie who missed the offseason, trying to play catch-up.
“In my head, as a rookie, I wanted to be a vet, I wanted to be like them,” Baker said. “As I keep learning, yeah, I feel like a vet.”
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