Can the Atlanta Falcons Revitalize Left Tackle Sam Baker's Career?

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Can the Atlanta Falcons Revitalize Left Tackle Sam Baker's Career?
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Todd McClure (center). Harvey Dahl (guard). Tyson Clabo (tackle). 

Do you remember those guys, Atlanta Falcons fans? They were three-fourths of the absolute nastiest, filthiest, toughest offensive line in the NFL. Sure they racked up a ton of personal fouls over the years, but opponents knew that when they walked their collective butts inside the Georgia Dome, they were in for a fist fight...sometimes literally. 

Peter Konz (guard/center). Lamar Holmes (tackle). Garrett Reynolds (guard).

Supporters of the Red and Black are undoubtedly hoping to forget these names, as they were a part of one of the worst lines constructed in recent memory. Along with Ryan Schraeder (tackle) and Jeremy Trueblood (tackle), this unit contributed to knocking about 10 years off quarterback Matt Ryan's life.

Only Joe Hawley (guard/center) and Justin Blalock (guard) deserve somewhat of a pass for last season's debacle, as they weren't horrible (which says a lot), but for the most part this unit as a whole can be jettisoned without many shedding a tear.

One player that was a part of the Falcons line back in the "glory days" has come under immense scrutiny from fans and pundits alike regarding everything from his play to his toughness. 

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Incumbent left tackle Sam Baker has had an up-and-down career—to put it mildly. As the second of two first-round picks (2008), the first being quarterback Matt Ryan, the weight of protecting the blind side of the most successful QB in franchise history has come with a great deal of pressure. 

The Falcons traded back into the first round to acquire Baker's services after seeing him become just the third USC Trojan—in history—to garner first-team All-American status three times. You can see why most thought the Falcons knocked it out of the park with that draft.

And for a short time, they did. But while Ryan has continually ascended to being one of the best at his position, Baker's regression has left many scratching their heads. 

The knock on Baker coming out was his propensity for being injured as well as his less-than-ideal measurables—with the former aspect not having improved since he's been in the professional ranks. In fact, Baker has played in only 70 out of a possible 96 games in his six-year career.

After turning in a good year in the 2012-13 season, where he started and played in all 16 games, Baker only managed to start and play in four this season, with an injury to his left knee being the culprit.

When you factor in that Baker was benched in the 2011-12 season, you can plainly see how inconsistency has plagued his career. Let's take a look at how Baker excels and what he struggles with. 

Via NFL Rewind

Here we see Baker matched up with Greg Hardy (Carolina Panthers). Hardy is a tough matchup as he's big, quick and powerful. For Baker to have a chance to win against Hardy he had to beat him to the punch—so to speak.

Via NFL Rewind

Baker has an excellent initial kick-step. He gets out fast—almost cartoonishly so—and it allows him to properly align the defender before he has a chance to get going. Notice how Baker got his hands ready for combat.

Via NFL Rewind

Baker got plenty of arm extension and had great weight distribution, as well. He was in perfect position to defend any counter Hardy had to offer.    

Via NFL Rewind

Hardy tried the "rip and dip," but Baker's arm extension deadened the power Hardy needed to perform the tactic.

Via NFL Rewind

Baker got full extension and stopped Hardy in his tracks. This was a great job by the veteran. But in what closely mimics his career, Baker's discipline in his technique varies—to say the least. For a player who is not blessed with physical gifts, implementing proper technique should be a major priority.

Via NFL Rewind

Here's a great example of Baker using improper technique. Going against another fantastic end (St. Louis Rams' Robert Quinn), Baker allowed him to close the distance without getting his hands up in time. Baker is also too far out over his skis—meaning he had too much bend at his waist. 

Via NFL Rewind

By bending at his waist he didn't get a chance to properly align himself in the center of Quinn. Quinn was able to beat him easily with a simple speed rush. Having a monster like Quinn bearing down on your franchise QB is a frightening thought.

One that has come to fruition too many times on Baker's watch.

Via NFL Rewind

Here is another perfect example of Baker's technique improprieties. Instead of bending at his knees, he once again lets his waist do all the work. There's no way you can out-leverage your opponent without your legs being heavily involved.

Via NFL Rewind

That was just too easy for Quinn. Baker stood entirely too high and Quinn just slipped right by him.  

Via NFL Rewind

Then it was time to fire up Baker's theme song, "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" by the rock group Drowning Pool. You'll never see an elite tackle stay on the ground as much as Baker does. This lends itself to Baker's lack of balance and dexterity.

Via NFL Rewind

But when you couple those aspects with Baker's lack of strength, you have a disaster just waiting to happen.   

Via NFL Rewind

Here Baker got thrown to the side like a dirty dish rag. And of course he hit the ground yet again. Most of the people I know who spend that amount of time hitting the ground work in the adult dance industry—which is something Baker may want to think about applying for if he's not going to take more pride in his technique.

When you lack ideal measurables, power and balance, you have to apply sound technique to your craft. Especially at the left tackle position where you are consistently facing some of the most athletic players in the NFL.  

The Falcons may have miscast Baker as an elite player at the left tackle position, considering they extended his contract before this season. Don't get me wrong, Baker has the ability to be a solid player, just not on a consistent basis.

A move to right tackle may be just what the doctor ordered for Baker. More than likely he would draw the second-best rush option, which in turn could even out the talent discrepancy. But even then, Baker needs to get back in the lab and perfect his technique.

Baker isn't going anywhere; the Falcons need to make the most of the situation. 

Atlanta's new offensive line coach, Mike Tice, is exactly the type of coach to bring out the best in a player like Baker. If not, we'll continue to break out the shovels in an effort to dig Ryan out of the turf on a weekly basis. 

 

After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.

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