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With Stability In Mind, Pro Bowl Just The Start For Budda Baker 

Safety relishing chance to play in same defense for consecutive seasons

Cardinals safety Budda Baker talks with Bears defensive back Eddie Jackson during a Pro Bowl practice this week.
Cardinals safety Budda Baker talks with Bears defensive back Eddie Jackson during a Pro Bowl practice this week.

Coming off his best season and his first where he reached a Pro Bowl at safety, Budda Baker's enthusiasm for what comes next is what resonates.

His own belief in what he can do for the Cardinals is a large part of that, of course. But so is stability he has yet to enjoy since the Cardinals drafted him in 2017.

That first season, defensive coordinator James Bettcher used Baker mostly at strong safety. When Bruce Arians retired and Steve Wilks added Al Holcomb as defensive coordinator, Baker mainly played at nickel and was in the box a lot. When another coaching change begat Vance Joseph at defensive coordinator, Baker played much more free safety.

"I've always had to work in a different scheme, always worked at a different position," Baker said. "I'm just excited to be in the same defense consecutively, because I've never had that. Personally, I think my stats will be a lot better. Keeping the same defense, it can only get better."

Given that Baker is in Orlando for the Pro Bowl this week, the start he's had in Joseph's system tends to support Baker's claim. He's been to a Pro Bowl before – as a rookie for special teams – but this one, to start at safety, does mean more.

"I'm at the position I've played my whole life," Baker said.

Given the overall season the Cardinals had on defense, that their two Pro Bowlers came from that side of the ball (outside linebacker Chandler Jones is the other) is an impressive statement for both players. Jones had been All-Pro before, and his 19 sacks tended to grab attention across the league.

Baker's numbers are more subdued – 147 tackles, according to league stats, seven for loss, six pass breakups, half a sack – but he did play 1,119 defensive snaps, missing only 13 all season. The latter total was second in the NFL behind only teammate Jordan Hicks, who played every one of the Cards' 1,132 defensive snaps.

"The film is honest," Joseph said. "When you watch the film, you have to say this kid is one of the best players in the league."

There is a pride Baker carries through that play. Like teammate Kyler Murray on the other side of the ball, Baker's size – 5-foot-10, 199 pounds – was something considered as he was coming into the NFL. He knows he's on the smaller side of most safeties, something he's long lived with as he's played the game.

To be able to play well this season while showing he was durable – starting all 16 games, in addition to his snaps total – was a goal. Given that he shows little tangible evidence he will protect himself, flying around like a missile in games, it's a dichotomy the Cardinals embrace.

"The tenacity he plays with, we feed off that," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Him being the smallest guy on the defense, he plays like the biggest guy."

Baker sees that as part of his role, providing the energy that jolts the defense's overall emotion. He's a talker, letting opposing players or even fans know what he's thinking. When he can break up a pass or make a tackle for loss or level a ballcarrier, "I get really hype."

His ability to do that play after play is a trait a guy has to be born with, Joseph said.

"He is a great gauge for our defense," Joseph added. "If everyone played like Budda, we wouldn't lose a game."

Images from Wednesday's practice at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex