It’s no secret that NFL teams and scouts alike covet big, physical players. Turn on just about any general manager introductory press conference of the last several years, and you’ll hear similar claims from them all: they’re looking for big, tough, smart, physical, coachable, team-first players. But the numbers show that teams have been willing to ignore size when it comes to drafting defensive backs, and with good reason.
Just under a year ago, SB Nation published this article on how NFL teams are shying away from small wide receivers, but not necessarily small defensive backs. It stated for every sub-6’0 WR picked in the first five rounds, six sub-6’0 defensive backs are being selected. That sentiment rang especially true during the 2016 NFL Draft, when 17 sub-6’0 defensive backs were selected in the first five rounds, versus just three sub-6’0 wide receivers in the same rounds.
Take a look around the league, and it’s obvious why teams are putting their faith in smaller defensive backs. Tyrann Mathieu stands at just 5’9, yet has been an absolute force for the Arizona Cardinals since he arrived in 2013. The Los Angeles Chargers made the 5’10 Jason Verett the 25th overall pick in 2014, and have been rewarded with a shut-down corner. Size didn’t stop the Seahawks from making the 5’10 Earl Thomas their 14th overall selection in 2010, and Thomas is now a five-time Pro Bowler & Super Bowl champion.
The 2017 NFL Draft appears to feature a few smaller-than-ideal DBs with a shot at sneaking into the first round (such as Adoree Jackson and Tre’Davious White) but the one I have been most impressed with is Washington FS Budda Baker. Baker stands at just 5’9 and leaves Washington for the NFL with an impressive 24 career passes deflected and 13.5 tackles for loss. Those numbers are an indication of how Baker made plays both in the secondary, and around the line of scrimmage. Baker also performed well at the combine, running a 4.45 40-yard dash, a 3-cone time of 6.76, and 4.08 in the 20-yard shuttle — all impressive times for a safety.
It appears that Baker’s on-field testing caught the eye of one smaller-than-ideal defensive back I mentioned earlier:
— Earl Thomas (@Earl_Thomas) March 6, 2017
Let’s get into where Baker wins on the field.
Sub-6’0 defensive backs are not supposed to disengage this violently, right? Tell that to the USC RB who gets tossed aside here. As Baker records the pressure, the play results in an INT for his teammate.
Baker has a special ability to weave through traffic and locate the football. Balance and flexibility are on display here as Baker makes the stop behind the line of scrimmage.
Baker is excellent against the run, and this is an impressive backside stop. Despite his size, Baker does not get lost in the clutter around the line.
We haven’t quite showed you Baker’s ability as a pure safety; here, he times his arrival with the ball and gets there just in time to lay the wood that breaks up this pass completion.
Another thing we haven’t shown you yet is his ability to blitz. Here, he does an excellent job selling the fact that he’s in coverage, but just as the ball is snapped, he fires off his stance to get into the backfield and record the sack. Scouts will love the closing speed on display here.
Baker is not just a safety that can play around the line of scrimmage or as a center fielder. He’s in one-on-one coverage here, and gets physical at the top of the route to make sure the intended target never reaches his spot. This designed play never had a chance.
While we’ve shown you all the ways that Baker makes up for his lack of size, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about height. In coverage in the end zone here, Baker times his jump extremely well, but he’s just a little too short to make a play on the ball, and it ends up as a touchdown for the offense.
Despite Baker’s lack of size, you’ve now read about how teams are willing to look the other way when it comes to talented defensive backs, which Baker certainly is. Baker showcases a unique skill-set on tape, and tested well in Indianapolis as well. Those are all factors that make him worthy of joining the likes of Earl Thomas and Jason Verett as sub-6’0 defensive backs to be drafted in the first round.