Budda Baker dropped to the second round of the 2017 draft mainly due to size concerns, but proved as a rookie his 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame could hold up at safety.
Now he's ready to up the ante.
Baker's role in the Cardinals' subpackages in 2018 will be diverse, including regular work near the line of scrimmage as a de facto outside linebacker. On run plays, that could mean going head-to-head against behemoth offensive linemen. When asked about his ability to handle such a size disparity, Baker smiled broadly.
"I've been doing it my whole life," Baker said. "Little league, high school and college."
Baker showed last season he could be a game-changer on the back end of the defense, and is "very confident" he will find success among the giants in the box. Cardinals coach Steve Wilks is similarly unconcerned about Baker's size, citing his second-year player's physicality as the reason he will succeed.
Wilks pointed to the success of smaller safeties like Seattle's Earl Thomas and former Chicago Bears star Mike Brown as the blueprint for Baker.
"The wear and tear of the season is going to take a hold on everybody, but he'll be fine in there," Wilks said.
Baker started the final seven games of his rookie year at strong safety following a season-ending knee injury to Tyvon Branch, finishing the abbreviated campaign with 61 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack, a fumble recovery and six passes defensed.
His immediate success made General Manager Steve Keim's decision to trade up for him in the draft look prescient. Baker first turned heads by dominating on special teams – he made the Pro Bowl for his efforts – and had an unbelievable starting debut against the Texans.
Safety Antoine Bethea saw something special in Baker from his first preseason game as a rookie.
"It's his instincts," Bethea said. "That's what this game is about. It's all about instincts. You can put the Xs and Os up there, but if you have a guy who has natural instincts, he can be a playmaker."
Baker played exclusively strong safety a year ago because Tyrann Mathieu operated in the nickel cornerback spot. Mathieu was released this offseason and went to the Texans, opening up the jack-of-all-trades role.
Baker will remain at strong safety in the base defense and slide down to the slot in nickel and dime formations. He envisions a large imprint defensively, with sacks, interceptions and tackles for loss all in play.
"It makes me very excited," Baker said. "It brings me back to my junior year of college, making all those plays and doing everything."
In his final season at the University of Washington in 2016, Baker finished with 70 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, 9.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He thrived again last year, and even with new challenges in front of Baker, there is a universal feeling that 2018 will be more of the same.
"He will make plays," Bethea said. "It's funny, I was just telling him when we were talking into the locker room that he's grown up fast, (with) all the responsibility that he holds in this defense. … Budda, he's a special player."
Notable images from the start of Cardinals training camp