Rookie Baker striving to anchor revitalized Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the most important pieces in the rebuilding of the Atlanta Falcons believes in messages and he gets one nearly every day.

When new Falcons' general manager Thomas Dimitroff swung a draft day trade to move back into the first round and selected USC offensive tackle Sam Baker after a run on offensive linemen was making him anxious, many learned hands viewed it as a reach. Although Baker was only the third three-time All-American first-team selection in USC's history after starting 49 of his 52 games as a collegian, he was viewed by some as less of a sure thing than his resumé would make him appear.

Dimitroff, however, had few doubts about two things -- Baker was a player and the Falcons desperately needed someone to come in at left tackle and protect the most valuable commodity in Flowery Branch at that moment -- No. 1 draft choice Matt Ryan.

Whether or not Ryan starts at quarterback when the season opens Sept. 7, it is just a matter of time before he becomes the face of the franchise that Dimitroff and new head coach Mike Smith are trying to resurrect from the ashes of Michael Vick's demise and Bobby Petrino's self-immolation. Ryan can't do it, they theorize quite rightly, if he's on his face.

Enter Sam Baker, a quiet man of faith, both in himself and, more importantly, in a power greater than himself. Baker is a deeply Christian young fellow who believes his Lord has a plan for him. In case he had any doubts, he's been reminded of that daily.

"John Abraham takes me to school every day," the 6-foot-5, 315-pound rookie tackle said of the former Pro Bowl pass rusher who had 10 sacks last season and 63.5 thus far in a nine-year career. "He's a beast."

"These are the best football players in the world. I didn't think I'd just come in and dominate. Take John Abraham, he's a headache right there."

New Falcons offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, who is being viewed as a bit of a savior himself in Atlanta, says he reminds Abraham daily that he wants Baker put under the maximum amount of pressure because that's what he'll be facing all season as he protects Ryan's back side by protecting his blindside.

"I tell John, 'Don't make this a union deal,'" the crusty Boudreau said. "He's making him work. He's trying things with his hands and doing things Sam has never seen before. He's working him pretty hard."

Perhaps unknowingly, Abraham is also reminding the deeply faithful Baker that this summer of struggles will soon pay off for him, for Matt Ryan and for the Falcons. At least it will if he follows the plan, both Boudreau's and a higher authority's.

"I really believe God has a plan for my life," Baker said. "I'm a Christian guy and that's what I believe. It's kind of funny, but I told my dad that John Abraham has 'GOD'S PLAN' tattooed across his back. Every time I have a struggle against him and he's walking back to the huddle I can see it and I'm reminded why I'm going through this."

God's Plan is one thing, but at the moment Boudreau's Plan, to have Baker ready to compete in the NFL by the season opener against the Detroit Lions, is more pressing. Whether Ryan or veteran Chris Redman starts at quarterback that day, everyone in Atlanta knows it's just a matter of time before the former Boston College quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist takes over the offense. The sooner Baker shows he fits into Boudreau's plan, the sooner they may see Ryan on the field, a thought not lost on either rookie.

"Every left tackle wants to do his job and that's protecting the quarterback," said Baker, whose father David is the former president of the Arena Football League and a 6-foot-9 giant who laughs when reminded that some NFL scouts worried that his son had "short arms."

"For a rookie it's a little more intense because there's so much to learn. My education started with OTAs (organized team activities). I felt like I had my eyes closed the way John Abraham went around me so fast," Baker said.

"I learn something new every day, but after a while things started to slow down for me. I started to adjust to the speed of these guys. I'm getting better and adjusting to the things these guys can do."

What he's also had to adjust to is Boudreau, a heart-of-gold kind of guy with an outer edge that is prickly at times, but only so as to make clear to his linemen both the importance of their job and the difficulty of executing it.

He lost little time making that clear to Baker, who said he's thankful that he had some preparation for that side of the game at least.

"At USC I had one coach up my (rear) and the other one was the teacher," Baker recalled with a grin. "Now I got them both in the same guy.

"From the moment I got here coach Boudreau taught me little things we didn't do in college. Right off he changed my stance and the way I kicked out. He's really like the guru of this stuff. Every day I get a nugget."

He gets more than that being a rookie. Every day he gets some sort of abuse from his veteran line mates. On a smoldering Thursday morning at training camp what he got from them beyond some sound advice were nine helmets to carry into the locker room after practice, one from each of the more veteran linemen he works with daily in search of ways to keep Atlanta's quarterbacks upright.

Although Baker's hands are big he could only handle eight of them, hooking his fingers around a facemask here and an ear hole there while refusing several offers of assistance. Finally, someone slipped the ninth helmet between his arms and it rested on top of the other eight as he balanced it and a bottle of water while refusing one last offer of a helping hand.

**Camp: Flowery Branch, Ga.
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Preseason games:
Aug. 9: at Jacksonville, 7:30 p.m. ET
Aug. 16: Indianapolis, 7:30 p.m. ET
Aug. 22: Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. ET
Aug. 28: at Baltimore, 7 p.m. ET**

"I've got to do this," Baker said innocently. "Its part of the job."

Part of the plan, too. A plan Baker believes he will follow onto the field at the Georgia Dome for many years to come, even though that part of the plan isn't quite yet fully in focus.

"I was talking to Step (backup center Alex Stepanovich) and he told me it should hit me in camp," Baker said. "He said one day you just realize you're not a rookie, now you're a professional. You see you can compete with these guys. It will come."

It came pretty quickly at USC, where he was an instant starter. His mentor, Boudreau, believes the same thing will happen in Atlanta as long as Abraham continues to challenge him and Baker finds ways to respond.

"When you look at a rookie you wait for the mood swings," Boudreau said. "Sam's so quiet and laid back you're not sure if he's getting it and then you'll watch practice tape and see he's trying to do some technique we've taught exactly the way we taught it.

"He's a smooth athlete in space. I'd compare him to (former 49eres' Pro Bowl tackle) Harris Barton. When Harris first came into the league you wondered if he was really a guard not a tackle because he was so athletic and smooth. That's what this kid is.

"He's very smart. He picks things up. You say, 'Try this' and then you see him on film working on it. Is he going to be (like perennial Pro Bowlers Willie) Roaf or (Tony) Boselli? Probably not, but he's going to be a solid guy for a long time and an anchor for us."

For a ship as adrift as the Atlanta Falcons became a year ago, that's exactly what they need. An anchor who can protect and stabilize a luxury item named Matt Ryan.

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