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Cardinals are teaching Budda Baker to be the next Tyrann Mathieu

"We don't have any expectations for Budda just like with Ty," Cardinals secondary coach Nick Rapone said. "We take our time and see how it goes." Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Little could have prepared second-round pick Budda Baker for what the Arizona Cardinals had waiting for him when he arrived at rookie minicamp.

Unbeknownst to Baker, a safety at the University of Washington, the Cardinals had drafted him to play both nickel cornerback and strong safety -- two entirely different positions with different schemes. Baker was at a further disadvantage because Washington operates on the quarter system and an NFL rule barred him as a rookie from participating in OTAs and minicamp until his school's commencement took place on June 10. That gave Baker just three days during rookie minicamp to begin learning the defense.

Cardinals secondary coach Nick Rapone didn't waste any time once Baker arrived at the team's Tempe facility.

He inundated Baker with 21 coverages -- 12 in the first day -- and 144 check downs in 72 hours. Every other rookie defensive back had about a month to learn the same amount of information.

"To say the least, he was overwhelmed," Rapone said.

Baker wasn't expecting the early workload.

"It was definitely challenging for rookie minicamp," he said.

But Rapone has been patient. He used the same formula four years ago to great success with another dual-position star of the secondary, Tyrann Mathieu.

When the Cardinals drafted Mathieu in 2013, they had plans to turn him into a nickel and free safety. Mathieu, with the benefit of participating in OTAs and minicamp, started at nickel in Week 1 as a rookie and at safety, too, by Week 5. When that proverbial lightbulb went on for Mathieu, he became an indispensable two-for-one defensive back who could cover wideouts on one play, blitz off the edge on another, guard a tight end on a third and roam the deep post on a fourth -- all in succession if needed.

That's the type of player the Cardinals hope Baker becomes.

Since the Cardinals drafted Baker, he's been regularly compared to Mathieu. In fact, scouts were making that comparison while visiting Baker at Washington's Seattle campus. Both are undersized -- Baker is 5-foot-10, Mathieu is 5-foot-9. Both pack power into their frames. Both can play safety and nickel.

Having one player who can play center field one play, and man on a wideout the next isn't common. Having two, though?

"That's rare," Rapone said. "What that means is your matchup in base is pretty good because you got guys that can play the tight end. It's just coincidence that they happen to be, height-wise, not your NFL-sized guys."

Baker has the potential to be another Mathieu, but it'll take time.

"We don't have any expectations for Budda just like with Ty," Rapone said. "We take our time and see how it goes.

"Because [safeties] have so much on them, we'll let him take his time and see the progression when he comes in. What's nice is, you have an extra week of camp and you have five games. I'm sure he's going to play a lot in those five games."

Baker has already begun showing signs of grasping his roles.

He ran with the first-team defense in its dime package on Tuesday, building on his showing during Thursday's Hall of Fame Game, when he played 51 of 78 defensive snaps. He showed a decisiveness during that game that stuck out to coach Bruce Arians.

"When he's decisive, he's fast," Arians said. "And he's not afraid to stick it up in there and hit and tackle. [He's an] extremely good tackler."

Making up for the lost time of missing OTAs and minicamp will be a process, not necessarily a slow one, but a process nonetheless. After watching Baker in the Hall of Fame Game, Arians felt Baker would be "pressing some guys in that first group" had he not missed the offseason practices.

Baker has tried to make up for lost time on his own, and with the help of his teammates and coaches.

During OTAs and minicamp, Baker watched every practice on his iPad. He and Rapone would then discuss them on the phone Monday through Thursday for anywhere from eight to 20 minutes. There'd be little to no small talk. The calls were a rapid-fire succession of questions, usually from Baker to Rapone. And if the defense was flummoxed in practice, Rapone would sometimes quiz the rookie on what went wrong.

Those "online courses" helped save Baker from weeks, if not months, of catching up. He was able to learn the defense visually, understand the concepts and pick up the verbiage. He's spent training camp trying to convert what he's seen on his screen to the field.

"That helped a lot," Baker said. "I feel like if I didn't have that, then my head would be spinning. Now I'm slowing it down and all that type of stuff, and finally picking everything up."

It's helped that Baker is inquisitive.

He's constantly asking questions, whether it's to Rapone, Mathieu, or veteran safeties Antoine Bethea and Tyvon Branch. Arians sees Baker anytime he sees Bethea. He called Baker a "sponge."

Rapone subscribes to the theory that there is no such thing as a dumb question. For Baker, that's a good thing, considering the number of inquiries he's made to Rapone since he reported for training camp on July 21.

"If you go by the theory of only intelligent people ask questions, he asks a lot of questions," Rapone said. "He's learning so much, meaning when the nickel goes in there, he has to switch gears and understand what the nickel's doing, and the same when he has to play as the strong safety. The adjustments. The checks. There's quite a bit."

That's how Baker was in college, too. He was a filmaholic, breaking down film on Friday nights before games and then, hours before kickoffs, glued to his iPad, watching even more.

"He's going to know this defense inside and out," Washington defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. "He is going to wear out the DB coach, defensive coordinator, making sure he knows exactly what they want out of him."

Two days after he was drafted by the Cardinals, Baker texted Lake asking if they could meet to start breaking down film of the Cardinals' defense.

It was a Sunday night. Lake was spending the weekend at home with his family. But sure, he responded to Baker. No problem. First thing the next day, Baker met Lake in his office and the two began dissecting Arizona's defense, play by play. They watched three games from last season, including the opener against New England and the Week 7 tie with Seattle. Both men quickly discovered that the Cardinals' scheme was very similar to what the Huskies ran last season.

Lake then had to leave on a recruiting trip, but he had instructions for Baker: Diagnose every play and relate them to what he ran in college.

The best thing for Baker now is to get as many reps as he can. But, with the aid of hindsight, Mathieu said the toughest part of learning two positions isn't the X's and O's.

It's the communication.

"You don't talk much in college," Mathieu said. "Coach sets a play and you kind of play whatever comes up. It's always a challenge for a young guy to come in and learn multiple positions at this level. You have to talk a lot more. He's a quiet guy. I know I was a quiet guy but he's coming along well.

"Obviously, he's really smart, kind of reminiscent of myself a little bit as far as just taking the game as it comes to him, making the plays that come to him, not trying to force anything. He's an eager learner, too. He can take criticism.

"If you tell him something, he don't get mad about it. That'll ultimately help him in the long run."