When news surfaced that the Kansas City Chiefs would be the landing spot for 2019 first-round cornerback DeAndre Baker, the early indication was that his stay on the practice squad would be short-lived; he would be called up the minute he was ready.
But the Chiefs expressed their own version of, “Not so fast” on Friday.
“I’ll be honest with you, I won’t even go down that road,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said when asked about any potential timetable for the 23-year-old. “That’s really hard.”
What Spagnuolo was willing to share was an exchange he had with Baker just moments earlier — when the defensive coordinator asked him about how his initial week played out.
“He said, ‘Coach, it got a little bit better every day,’” recounted Spagnuolo. “Listen, we’ve got to remember that this young man has not played football this year. It’s different than bringing somebody else out from a practice squad or from another team. We kind of threw him in the fire early on the very first day. I’m saying it myself: I don’t know if that’s really fair. It’s going to take a little bit to get up to speed and I think just his body getting ready to play the speed of football, so we’ll take it slow.”
Unfortunately, time feels strangely of the essence for a 9-1 team; perhaps in a previous year, that would not be the case.
Sometimes lost in the 2020 coronavirus-driven alterations to the NFL rule book is the change that the league made to narrow the AFC and NFC down to one bye week each. It hardly needs to be said, but that is a major advantage for whichever teams win the conference. With six weeks to go, the Chiefs need to play unblemished football; they do not control their own destiny in that regard.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a perfect 10-0, while the Chiefs have played in back-to-back games in which the defense has given up 331 and 275 passing yards to Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr, respectively. The lack of defensive line pressure has played a role in those results, but so too has the struggles of a young secondary.
The prevailing idea is that a former 30th overall pick like Baker may help turn those struggles around.
“When you have an opportunity to get a first-round talent and implement him into your scheme and your system — Brett Veach and coach Reid did an awesome job of having an opportunity to get him,” defensive backs and cornerbacks coach Sam Madison said earlier this month. “Getting him and getting him caught up to speed on the way that we do things, that’s going to be the most important part.”
The Chiefs’ way of doing things may have been a very intentional choice for Baker, as reported by friend-of-the-site Terez Paylor of Yahoo! Sports.
Baker only became available to the Chiefs because the New York Giants waived him back in early September as Baker went through significant legal troubles. At the time, he cleared waivers and was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list.
Baker was being prosecuted on four counts of robbery with a firearm that stemmed from an incident that occurred in May. However, the Broward State Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against Baker when the attorney for the alleged victims was charged with extortion in mid-November.
For the excellent article earlier this week, Paylor spoke with NFL legend Deion Sanders, who pushed for the Chiefs as a landing spot.
“Why wouldn’t you go to someone [that’s winning] like Kansas City ... where you get to really see and experience winning?” Sanders said, via Paylor. “You’ve just come off some bull-junk, losing psychologically and emotionally and personally, and you’ve got to have some winning in your life.”
Sanders has always believed in Baker’s talent since his days as a college football player at Georgia — and he specifically mentioned Tyrann Mathieu as a key piece to the puzzle.
Mathieu’s life struggles as he transitioned from his final season at LSU to the NFL are well documented. But he found a way to turn his life around, standing now as a two-time All-Pro and Super Bowl champion. He relishes an opportunity such as one in which he can mentor Baker.
“That’s part of the reason I came here — to be around some young guys that really can learn from me,” he said this week. “Obviously, I’ve been through a lot of life challenges, a lot of different circumstances. I actually reached out to him right before he actually got here — and I just kind of told him that I’ll always be in his corner, I’ll always be that shoulder he can lean on. I think that’s the most important thing, especially when people are coming to new environments.
“They’re just trying to find one person they can lean on, one person they can talk to, one person that can get them comfortable, and hopefully I’m able to do that for him. Just seeing him practice [Wednesday], the kid got some talent. You can tell he knows football a little bit, so it’s all about us just keeping his head right and then the football will take care of itself.”
Each year, Veach and his personnel staff identify what they feel to be first-round-graded players before the NFL Draft. Sometimes, that number does not surpass 20.
That makes for quite an interesting dilemma when the organization’s fairly newfound expectation is to pick around 32 each year. When a talent like Baker becomes available, as the Chiefs, you must first do your homework — and if the player makeup checks out, you proceed.
Then you put that player next to a leader like Mathieu — and hand him to your Super Bowl-winning coaching staff.
“We start from scratch, we try to take the tools they have and make them better,” Spagnuolo said on November 19. “Sam (Madison) and Dave (Merritt), when anybody comes in here, they try to do that, and we go about it as if someday this person may have to help us. Whether that happens right away or later on, we don’t know that, so we’ll see.”
On Friday, it felt like more later on than right away. But with all the people on his side — saying the right things — this one might be worth the wait.