They were first-round picks and that alone created enormous expectations for Atlanta offensive tackle Sam Baker and defensive tackle Peria Jerry.
Baker was taken in 2008, the same year the Falcons drafted quarterback Matt Ryan. The theory was, the Falcons would have their franchise quarterback and the protector of their franchise quarterback for the next decade or so. Jerry was taken in 2009 and was expected to be a dominant run stopper as well as provide a little interior pass rush. On paper, both picks looked like smart moves at the time.
In cold, hard reality, Baker and Jerry never have lived up to the expectations of Atlanta fans. They haven’t even come close. Baker was viewed as serviceable at first, but he’s regressed in the eyes of fans. And their perception was pretty close to reality last season, when journeyman Will Svitek ended up starting ahead of him. Jerry’s career simply was cursed almost right from the start. In the second game of his rookie season, Jerry tore up his knee. The Falcons and Jerry have never officially described the injury, but let’s just say Jerry tore just about everything in his knee. He barely has been a factor since.
That’s why there was speculation Baker and Jerry would be cut this offseason. But, guess what? That’s not happening. Our first clue came when free agency started. If the Falcons were going to pull the plug on Baker and Jerry, it would have happened before free agency started in March because that would have given the Falcons some much-needed cap room.
But, now, we’ve got even more concrete proof. I sat down with Atlanta coach Mike Smith during the NFL owners meeting earlier this week. I asked him specifically about the futures of Baker and Jerry.
In each case, Smith, as straight-forward a coach as I’ve ever dealt with, said the Falcons remain “committed’’ to Jerry and Baker.
Let’s start with Baker. This one might be painful to fans, but it’s a little easier to see what Smith is saying. The reality is, you just don’t find a franchise left tackle in the draft when you’re not picking until the second round. There wasn’t anything close to a franchise left tackle in free agency. In that situation, sometimes it’s best to stick with what you’ve got instead of reaching. Apparently, that’s what the Falcons are planning to do.
“We are very committed to Sam Baker,’’ Smith said. “I think Sam has a long future with us.’’
Smith is the kind of coach that likes to say most positions are open to competition in training camp. I think that’s true at left tackle, where Baker will have to compete with Svitek and anyone else the Falcons might bring in between now and then. But I also got the impression the Falcons are hoping Baker steps up and claims the job. I’m not saying Baker will ever be a Pro Bowler, but I think this guy has been banged up a lot more than people realize. I get the impression the Falcons think Baker can be adequate or slightly better than that, if he’s healthy.
“I think that Sam has shown a lot of resiliency,’’ Smith said. “Sam really has worked through a lot of injuries throughout his career. He’s played through a lot of things. Sam, in my mind, was playing very well through the first five or six games last season until he was injured and had to have the procedure done on his back, which put him out for a very significant amount of time.’’
Jerry’s a bit of a different story. I think the Falcons pretty much have accepted the fact, he never will be a superstar. But Smith made it sound like there still is a spot on the roster for Jerry as a role player.
“We’ve committed to Peria Jerry and Peria ended up playing about 30 percent of the snaps (last season),’’ Smith said. “He was a rotational player. He had some production, but it wasn’t consistent production throughout the year.’’
I reminded Smith how he said he thought Jerry would bounce back and have a big impact last season because he was further out from the knee surgery. That obviously didn’t happen and I asked Smith if Jerry’s knee still was holding him back last season.
“I can’t say that it is an issue,’’ Smith said. “It was a significant injury. I don’t know that Peria was the same guy he was before the injury. You see his ability to get up the field at times and we still feel he can be a very productive player for us.’’
I wouldn’t look for Jerry to suddenly jump into the starting lineup. Corey Peters has developed into a very solid defensive tackle. The other starter is Jonathan Babineaux. Although he’s coming off a sub-par season, it wasn’t all that long ago that Babineaux was the best defensive tackle in the NFC South. I’d look for Jerry to continue to rotate in behind those two guys. If he can be a little more consistent and productive than he was last season, I think the Falcons will be content with Jerry as their third defensive tackle.
“We need to be more consistent,’’ Smith said. “Not only Peria, but across the board on the defensive line.’’