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Draft Preview: Sam Baker

William Blake wrote that "The fool who persists in his folly will become wise." About 11 months ago I followed my folly to an almost absurd degree. I was attempting to decode the scouting combine, and while I don't think my method was flawed, I think my thinking was broken. Measuring a player's ability to explode in a straight line ignores some very essential facts: Football players almost never move in a straight line and blocking is not the same as running. My wisdom for so many hours of folly? A hard-earned appreciation of the skill of top offensive and defensive linemen.

That appreciation, fortified by 200+ hours of watching tape this past fall led me to a thoroughly satisfying realization: Sam Baker's the steal of this draft. In most drafts, the 6'5" 3 time All-America left tackle from one of the nation's premier programs and top offensive lines would be a sure first 15 pick. But with so many Jonathan Ogden sized tackles in this year's class recent rumor has Baker falling as far as the third. That would be 7 kinds of sweet - for the team that takes him.

What you notice right away about Baker is that he's not projectable, he's not a toolsy guy in need of polish, he doesn't need this or this to succeed at the next level; he's there. Let's start with his blocking, and compare him against a player that many boards have projected ahead of him: Gosder Cherilus. Cherilus slap blocks. That is, he uses open palm strikes to ward off a defender. Cherilus is a huge, powerful guy, so I'm not naming this as a fatal flaw by any means, but watch him and you'll see: he lets defenders get inside and dictate where the two go. He is, to put this into Seahawks terms, the type of tackle Darryl Tapp feasts on. It doesn't look so bad when there's no quarterback back there, but Cherilus was blocking awfully deep in the pocket, don't you think?

Squared, Baker awaits the defender, ready to explode through his body into his block
Baker, on the other hand, explodes into his blocks. Using his exceptionally quick feet to stay square with his defender, Baker's blocks start from his feet, move up through his legs, into his arms and up under the defender's pads. While Cherilus wards off the defender, Baker drives the defender up and back. From a site that I can no longer find (perhaps deleted) I was able to watch 3 condensed USC games: UCLA, Washington State and last year's Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. Baker is assignment correct on nearly every play and consistently shows a precocious ability to engage a defender, disengage them once he is certain that they are out of the play and run up and engage another defender. This is an unheralded skill that has become almost essential in the NFL, where exotic blitz packages and blitzing linebackers are standard. The scouting community doesn't seem to agree, but I think Baker is a substantially better run blocker than Cherilus, too. He may not be as dominant physically, but he's considerably less stiff and if not "mean" or whatever such nonsense, an awesome pull blocker that delivers knockout blocks on the move.

Baker may be suffering just the first wave of gobbledygook, drills and measurables that regularly push great players behind great talents. It's foolishness, outright hubris perhaps, and like the career gambler the occasional success reinforces this flawed thinking that pushes inferior players with better tools ahead of superior players, accomplished players who have excelled at the highest level, but it happens every draft. No track, no set of weighed plates, or tape measure can accurately measure the skill of a player to play his position like one series of balls-out, top competition I-A football. Here's hoping Baker continues to fall thanks to his poor showing in the swim suit portion of the NFL Draft, because while he struggles at plain clothes sprints and pushing iron, he does do one thing exceptionally well: play left tackle.

Photo Courtesy: Trojan NYC