DeAndre Baker has been a 'handful' during troubling rookie season

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The struggles have been real for rookie cornerback DeAndre Baker.

Maybe if he were playing on the interior or had more time to acclimate to the NFL game it wouldn't be so painfully obvious to anyone who has watched the New York Giants this season that he is experiencing serious growing pains. But that reality has been on full display.

Baker is a rookie. He plays on the outside, often on an island, exposed like a young buck in a field of wolves. It has been a problem for the first-round pick and the Giants. Baker's struggles have left teammates and those shouldering the arduous task of making sure he knows what to do on the field exhausted.

Two players recently described Baker as a "handful" this season, sources told ESPN. It's an issue that has become noticeable even to guys on the offensive side of the football.

It's more than just allowing a completion or committing one of his team-leading seven penalties this season. It's being able to trust that Baker knows his responsibility on a particular play and won't commit a mental lapse like he did on a 49-yard Marvin Hall touchdown in Detroit. These types of costly mistakes, when the defensive call has been right but the execution insufficient, have left the defense demoralized far too often.

More than anything, it can be attributed to a consistency issue for a player who entered the draft with questions about his character and had at least two other teams concerned because of his lackadaisical training and questionable attitude.

The 30th overall pick described the first 10 games of his rookie season, which have him ranked 113th out of 113 cornerbacks graded by Pro Football Focus, as "up and down." But Baker is adamant there has been improvement each week. He insists he's better now entering Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears than he was during the first half of his rookie season.

"Just overall as a cornerback," Baker said. "More feel of the game. More comfortable."

There have still been unconscionable lapses. Baker appeared to be jogging after the Jets' Demaryius Thomas on a 47-yard catch-and-run in the Giants' last game.

It was the kind of moment that can permanently stain a résumé. The play was reviewed harshly in front of the entire team after the loss to the Jets, according to sources.

"I've never seen anything like it," one player said of the team meeting last week when Baker was taken to task.

The message was clear: Lack of effort is not acceptable and would not be tolerated.

"I've addressed a few things," coach Pat Shurmur said last week before Giants players took off for their bye week. "But I would never share that with you."

Baker knew right away when asked by ESPN this week which play it was that his effort was being questioned. It wasn't his finest moment.

"I just have to finish on the play a little bit harder," Baker said. "That's all."

Was he disappointed with himself?

"I wouldn't say disappointed," Baker said. "Just one of those plays where I can finish harder."

It was right there for his teammates, coaches and fans to see. The eye in the sky never lies.

Baker's teammates let him know.

"He knows that is unacceptable," safety and team captain Michael Thomas said. "We're in a league where you got to be able to have guys that can talk to one another and say, 'Look, bro. I depend on you and you depend on me. Plays like that are unacceptable.'

"When we can all look at each and speak that way and understand my job really depends on you and yours depends on me, than you realize that things like that are unacceptable."

It has been that kind of season for the Giants and the rookie cornerback, who admitted several weeks back that he needed to improve his knowledge of the playbook. Baker has been thrown into a difficult spot coming from a system at the University of Georgia where he never switched sides and almost always could best utilize his skill set by being physical at the line in press-man coverage.

But this is the NFL, where the competition is more difficult and the defensive schemes more complex. There is no way around that.

This has been an especially tough transition. Baker was thrown into the fire at one of the most difficult positions and asked to learn from two coaches who were also relatively new to the NFL. Defensive backs coach Everett Withers and assistant Henry Baker have spent most of their careers -- including the past decade or so -- in college. Probably not ideal for a defensive backfield with five players either in their first or second season.

"Much different game to the college game," Shurmur said. "In the college game they defend no-huddle. So they stand in one spot. Play the right or left. He stands on one spot and waits for the offense to come out to him. And then they have about 90 plays ran at 'em.

"This is more strategic. There are less plays and more happening. There is a lot to learn and when you're out there on an island there is a lot to learn. Like playing quarterback. In a lot of ways it's a different game and they are playing a position we all notice ... a lot! There are a lot of plays that go by where somebody in the core wasn't quite perfect ... when you're out there on the edges, you notice it."

This is the hard part for the Giants' veterans. They saw Baker's early struggles but knew as a high pick with no proven options behind him that he would be given a long leash. The Giants tried to play Antonio Hamilton in the opener knowing Baker likely wasn't ready. That didn't work. Instead they were forced to ride Baker, regardless of the results, sometimes to the dismay of everybody around him.

Baker has allowed a 149.9 passer rating (worst in NFL), 629 yards (third most) and six touchdowns (tied for second most) so far this season, per PFF.

"It's a process man," said veteran safety and defensive captain Antoine Bethea. "I don't think people really understand what it takes to come in as a rookie and expect to come in and play a heavy load. Sometimes you get a situation where they can ease you in ... it's kind of one of those things where you have to put your arm around him and bring him along. We're going to have growing pains together. We're going to have good stuff together. Bad stuff together. Eventually, it comes a time where you have to learn from the mistakes that are happening. We all have to grow together."

That is perhaps one of the few positives. Baker is learning on the fly. It could pay dividends down the road. Eli Apple, the No. 9 pick in 2016, struggled early in his Giants career and has since blossomed into a solid starting cornerback (ranked 20th per PFF) for the New Orleans Saints.

"The thing that Bake has shown me is that he is willing to come to work," defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. "I would worry if we were sitting in the meeting room and he didn't own a mistake. ... I don't worry because he owns whatever the correction needs to be."

There are enough glimpses of solid play, strong work ethic and desire to get better to see why the Giants took Baker in the first round despite some around the league having concerns.

"He's going to get better. He's going to learn," Thomas said. "Honestly, I feel he can play this game at a high level. I've seen him work. I've seen him make plays. It's just consistency. It's just being consistent and doing your job every single time."

There are six games remaining to salvage this rookie season and provide hope for the future. To show that all the time and energy that has been spent on getting him up to speed will serve a long-term purpose.

Baker isn't worried about that.

"Just play my best football," he said. "That is all I'm trying to do."