It's been a strange road for Falcons left tackle Sam Baker.
Flashback to 2008: the Falcons have just selected Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the draft. But with only the agin Wayne Gandy and the unproven Quinn Ojinnaka, the front office realizes they need to find a long-term solution at left tackle, someone who can protect the franchise QB for many years to come.
Not only that, but the Falcons needed a tackle who could serve as a punishing run-blocker, someone who could pave the way for a rushing attack featuring then-unknown Michael Turner. With a host of draft picks at his disposal, Thomas Dimitroff elects to trade away a couple of draft picks for pick No. 21 in the draft, which the Falcons then used to select USC offensive tackle Sam Baker.
You could call that the high point in Baker's four-year NFL career, because afterwards it didn't get much better.
Baker's rookie season was by all accounts decent. The offensive line (in large part due to Turner's fantastic season) only allowed Ryan to be sacked 17 times all year. Baker was solid, if unspectacular.
The 2009 season saw the O-line regress somewhat, allow 27 sacks on the year. Baker saw no real improvement, and lacked consistency. Some games were impressive, while some were downright awful. Then after struggling early in the 2010 season, rumors were flying that Baker was nearly benched for backup Will Svitek. It wouldn't be until one year later that rumor would hold true.
If his draft day selection was the highpoint of Baker's career, then last Sunday's game in Carolina was almost certainly the low point. Having already lost his starting spot at left tackle to Will Svitek, Baker was given the opportunity to play some snaps at right guard and fill in for a struggling Joe Hawley.
That lasted perhaps two drives at most. After Baker allowed his man Antwan Applewhite- a mid-season addition who's managed a total of two sacks on the year- to take Ryan down in the end zone for a safety, he was promptly benched in favor of Hawley. The Falcons would go on to score 23 second-half points with Baker riding the bench.
Svitek, on the other hand, has been nothing short of impressive. Over the past four weeks, he's allowed only one sack (Charles Johnson), and perhaps most notably held league-leading sack man Jared Allen without one. Svitek may have first gotten the job by default, but he's kept the starting role with some impressive pass protection.
As for Baker, I'm not sure what's gone wrong. In fact, I'm pretty sure Baker himself doesn't have an answer for that either. On his benching:
"Sorry, I really don't what to tell you right now"
You can blame the nagging injuries that have plagued him the past four years. You could even blame the mental lapses and numerous false start penalties. Regardless, the former first-round pick is due to make around $1.9M next season, about double his current salary. A trade or release could lie in the near future.
As for Thomas Dimitroff, this is perhaps the first true blemish on his nearly spotless career with the Falcons. You can bet that by the time the offseason rolls around, the Falcons will be again be looking for that franchise left tackle that so many teams covet.
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