The Pittsburgh Steelers returned to prioritizing the secondary in the first round of the 2016 draft last year, selecting Miami’s Artie Burns with the 25th overall pick. There are certainly other needs to consider, but that trend could continue on draft weekend this April, as Pittsburgh needs to add a nickel cornerback to battle for a starting spot with the depreciating William Gay and the oft-injured Senquez Golson.
Gay’s decline became obvious as last season wore on, and while the Steelers would love to count on Golson to fulfill his worth as a second-round selection in 2015, the third-year player has made it through a grand total of two training camp practices since arriving in the NFL. If Golson is healthy for Week 1, it’ll be a few months shy of three years since he last set foot on the field of an actual football game. Regardless of how much the team may have liked Golson as a rookie, the reality is that no one knows what type of player he currently is, and this secondary isn’t good enough to stand pat.
Enter Washington’s Budda Baker, an explosive safety who makes up for his lack of elite size with an incredible motor, fleet-footed athleticism and some of the best ball skills and instincts in the draft. Baker played free safety for Washington, but often aligned in the slot, matching up against receivers in man coverage with a terrific success rate. Baker’s quick feet and change of direction properly equip him to stick with more sudden route runners inside, while his physicality also gives defenses a stout run defender near the box.
At 5-9 5/8, 195, Baker, some might think, would be better suited for play away from the line of scrimmage. But the tape shows that impression couldn’t be further from the truth. While the safety is a stud in coverage on the back end, Baker’s nose for the football and aggressive mindset help him consistently slip blocks and make stops in the run game. He’s a strong wrap-up tackler who brings more hitting power than you’d expect, and while Baker will bounce off a ball-carrier here and there, he gets his man to the ground with impressive consistency.
“I can’t really get mad when people knock my height,” Baker said last week at the NFL Combine. “God made me this height. All I can say is watch the film. We always say ‘the film will set you free.’ No matter how tall you are, or big you are, if you watch the film, everything else will take care of itself.”
If Gay’s tenure in Pittsburgh is any indication, the Steelers value smarts and communication in the slot, two qualities that Baker also brings to the table thanks to starting all three of his years at Washington. Known as a film and gym rat, Baker’s ability to diagnose routes and take perfect angles to the ball in coverage are a result of studying his opponent to master their tendencies. This ability also aids Baker on the back end, where he has the range and ball skills to play single high or cover 2 as an eventual option to replace Mike Mitchell someday.
“I’m equally proficient at all those things,” Baker said. “I can be in a post player type defense, or I can be in the box. Teams say they like my film, whether it’s free safety or nickel. They feel I can blitz off the edge, play man in the slot, make open field tackles. Teams just ask me what I wanna play.”
The versatility Baker brings to the table is evident on tape, and could give the Steelers an interesting option in dime situations if they want to get Vince Williams off the field. Baker doesn’t provide the size and strength of a potential $backer such as Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu or a potential three-down inside prospect such as Temple linebacker Haason Reddick, which could hurt the Pittsburgh defense when trying to match hat-for-hat in the box on third-and-medium situations. Also, despite Baker's technique and athleticism, he isn’t a mismatch eliminator when matched up against tight ends in the slot, as he can lose battles at the catch point to bigger and longer targets.
But if there were concerns about Baker’s athleticism, those worries were laid to rest at the Combine, where the junior ran a 4.45 40-yard dash to go with a 6.76 3-cone and a 4.08 short shuttle. Baker’s production shouldn’t be in question either, with five career picks and 18 passes defensed to go with his over 200 tackles. Playing more in the slot or box this past season, Baker amassed nine tackles for loss and three sacks, while establishing a reputation as one of the best blitzing safeties in the nation.
Think that sounds attractive to a defensive coordinator who likes to send defensive backs as often as Keith Butler does?
Baker may not be the top first-round option for the Steelers, given their needs at outside linebacker and tight end, as well as the bevy of true cornerbacks in which the team may be interested at pick 30, but he does give them another option of a quality football player who should fit nicely into their 2017 plans.
(Read CBS Sports for details of Baker's performance at Washington's pro day.)