Before free agency even began, the Bengals added what looks to be Pat Sims’s replacement on the defensive line.
Defensive tackle Chris Baker signed a 1-year deal with Cincinnati for what is reportedly about three million. In other words, it’s enough to essentially confirm his spot on the final roster.
Baker signing with the Bengals makes all the sense in the world. But just to confirm, let’s run through the checklist.
Was he cut? Check.
Did he have a down year? Check.
Is it a one-year deal? Check.
Baker joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a three-year deal worth 15,750,000 million last offseason coming off two productive seasons for the Washington Redskins. Nine million of that deal was guaranteed as well. He was a coveted acquisition after coming off of two very productive years with the Washington Redskins, but his game did not translate into Tampa Bay.
In 2016, Baker accounted for 8.1% of Washington’s tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage with seven tackles and 4.5 sacks, and lead all interior defenders for the Redskins. In 2017, that number dropped to 4.58% for the Buccaneers as he finished last season with just six tackles and just half of a sack. There was an obvious drop in production, but flashes of his 2016 tape still showed up. Before we get to that, let’s indulge in what made Baker attractive to Tampa Bay in the first place with his 2016 tape.
As wordsmith Mike Mayock would put it, Baker’s got a lot of junk in the trunk (sorry). He has a lot of lower body mass, but he’s very light on his feet, which is an ideal combination. At his best, he’s able to generate explosion coming out of his stance and get under a lineman’s pads, but he also is very keen on being aware of the ball carrier. Both of these qualities are displayed on this tackle for loss as he goes to work against the next year’s first-team All-Pro center Jason Kelce.
Disruption occurs when tangibles intersect with intangibles. Applied athleticism, a term I just made up, is raw physical traits mixed meshed with spatial awareness, balance and control. There’s a pretty high chance Baker knew what the play call was in this diamond pistol look from Green Bay, which explains why he delayed his get-off to cross the face of the center. He sticks his back leg in the ground and explodes up field to meet the running back in the backfield for yet another tackle for loss.
It takes some kind of athlete to get a sack out of an outside swim move from the 2i alignment. Baker takes a hard first step to the right to get the guard leaning inside. This gets him bent over almost completely and gives Baker room to counter back outside. The guard does his best to recover, but Baker has nearly eclipsed the edge at this point and is able to bend his hips enough to get free. The center notices Baker has a free lane to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and picks him up deep in the pocket, but Baker launches him up and finishes to Rodgers. Nuance, balance, and raw speed to power all in one rep.
Even the 2016 Dallas Cowboys offensive line had bad plays. On this outside zone run, Baker keeps his eyes up and facing the running back Ezekiel Elliott. The right tackle is attempting to cut block him, but Baker keeps his feet while reading the play and discards the right tackle. The nose tackle and force player on the edge forces the play back to Baker, who is free to make the stuff with the backside edge.
Don’t let someone tell you the reason a box defender wasn’t productive because the offense consistently avoided running in his direction. The good ones always find a way to make plays.
At 326 pounds, Baker ran a 5.12 40 yard dash in the 2009 combine; which for his size, is well above average for defensive tackles. He also jumped 35.5 inches in the vertical jump, which is even more impressive. Baker is a naturally explosive and fast athlete, and those numbers are translated on plays like this.
Baker is supposed to be combo blocked by the left guard and tackle, but just abuses the guard to the point where he is pushed back into the tackle. Still, the point of attack is in the offense’s favor as the rest of Washington’s defensive line is getting abused off the ball. Baker quickly makes his way down the line and cleans up the back before he gets more than two yards. Not only was he able to utterly negate the combo block, but was able to track down the ball carrier from the backside of the play.
Snap quickness, hip flexibility, and lower body explosion all present here. The snap quickness to get off the snap and in position to cross the drive block. The hip flexibility to rotate his waist to contort his frame through the gap. The lower body explosion to power through and finish the play. When Baker wanted to be good, he was that and then some.
When the Bengals traded for Chris Smith last spring, one of the factors that contributed to that move was the impression Smith made on the Bengals when he played them in the previous preseason. When Baker and Washington played the Bengals in London, it’s safe to assume it’s something the team remembered when bringing in Baker a year and half later.
Ultimately, Smith had a very good 2016 campaign, he was graded the 11th best 3-4 defensive end by Bleacher Report’s NFL1000, and was considered one of the top interior defensive lineman on the market last offseason. Tampa Bay offered the aforementioned three-year contract and Baker was supposed to be Gerald McCoy’s running mate for the next few years. But he was cut after one year with plenty of guaranteed money left on the table. Why?
On the field, he was simply way more inconsistent. He wasn’t creating as much disruption in the backfield, and former Bengal Clinton McDonald eventually out-snapped Baker by season’s end. But like I said, there were still glimpses of 2016 Baker mixed in there.
The play recognition and quickness was still there.
The gap discipline and balance was still there.
The raw power and explosion was in fact, still there.
Did Baker not gel with the locker room and coaches? It’s entirely possible. After Tampa Bay’s Week 16 loss to Carolina where Baker got caught jumping offsides, several of his teammates including Jameis Winston attempted to confront Baker after the loss. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back as the general sentiment with Baker was that his effort and therefore performance lacked all season. Considering this was his fourth team and was getting the largest amount of guaranteed money of his eight-year career, Baker’s motivation should’ve definitely been in question. Tampa Bay clearly wasn’t the best fit, but Baker’s troubles didn’t start in central Florida.
Baker originally was kicked off Penn State’s team back in 2008 after serving a season-long suspension the year prior for committing two misdemeanors and trespassing, which he plead guilty to after the season. He ended up transferring to Hampton University and ended up going undrafted. Committing assault as a student-athlete and becoming a source for locker room controversy 10 years later aren’t meant to be directly related, but sometimes the environment is all the difference.
Something to note is that in Cincinnati, Baker will be reunited with his former defensive line coach and defensive coordinator in Jacob Burney and Jim Haslett. Both were on staff for Baker’s first four years with Washington, but both left before the 2015 season, when Baker began to emerge as a quality starter. Having familiar faces to guide him back to his peak performance can’t hurt, as Baker will now be playing on a prove-it deal.
In full, Baker, when he wants to be, is a disruptive force that can be used from the 4i spot to right on the center’s nose. He has the build of a traditional nose guard but has the explosion and balance of an under tackle. His arrival will for all intents and purposes mean Pat Sims has seen his final days in Cincinnati, and should prove to be an upgrade over the long-time Bengal.
Baker won’t see many more contracts after this one as he turns 31 this season. He’s got to make this one count.