There have been two general reactions from Falcons' fans since Sam Baker was lost for the season: 1) OMG, we lost our starting left tackle; or 2) That’s OK, we only loss Sam Baker.
Both are understandable. The left tackle protects the quarterback’s blind side. Kind of important. But Baker widely has been considered a bust since the Falcons traded up to draft him late in the first round in 2008, and part of the reason is he’s been injured so often.
He played only eight games (five starts) in his rookie season. He started only six games in 2011 and four last year. He has played many/most games hurt. Even when he has been in there, he hasn't been remotely close to the player general manager Thomas Dimitroff expected when he traded two second-round picks (Nos. 34 and 48) and a fourth (103) for Washington's late first rounder (21st).
In short, he hasn't been a player the team has relied on anyway.
Baker' latest injury, a torn right patellar tendon suffered in Saturday’s exhibition in Houston, follows a left knee injury last year and previous ailments including a herniated disc in his back. The injury makes the decision to give Baker a six-year, $41.1 million contract extension ($18.25 million guaranteed) in 2013 look even worse now.
Back to the injury: It hurts because no matter how you feel about Baker, it cuts into the offensive line's depth. This puts more pressure on rookie Jake Matthews (who presumably will be moved from right to left tackle) to perform immediately and presses Lamar Holmes back into the starting lineup at right or left tackle after an unimpressive 2013 season.
But this is an injury the Falcons can survive. The loss of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (torn Achilles) hurts the defense far more than Baker’s loss should hurt the offense.
Baker does not fall under the category of, “Players the Falcons can’t afford to lose.” These seven do:
• 1. Matt Ryan: T.J. Yates represents a nice upgrade as a backup quarterback. But it’s a far drop from Ryan to Yates.
• 2. Julio Jones: He’s the best player on the roster and the only one other teams need to game plan for. He's realistically the only Falcon who can turn a loss into a win with one play. Notwithstanding the team’s other injuries last year, the season ended when Jones suffered a broken foot.
• 3. Roddy White: He’s the toughest player on the team and more of a leader than most fans give him credit for. It’s imperative he stay healthy, especially with Tony Gonzalez’s lost receptions needing to be spread around.
• 4. Desmond Trufant: The team’s suspect pass rush will mean significant pressure on the secondary and Trufant is as good as the team has at cornerback.
• 5. Osi Umenyiora: This team needs pass rushers. The Falcons need Umenyiora’s speed, which allowed him to record 75 sacks with the New York Giants, including double-digit totals in 2005 (14.5), 2007 (13) and 2010 (11.5). Umenyiora got penetration and had a nice deflected pass in the Houston game Saturday.
• 6. William Moore: What he lacks in speed he makes up for in toughness. He’s a needed veteran presence in the secondary.
• 7. Steven Jackson: I realize I’m probably alone on this one but Jackson was brought in to give the Falcons some semblance of a power running game and a receiver out of the backfield. I haven’t seen enough from any of the other backs yet to assume they can match the potential of what a healthy and motivated Jackson brings to the table (assuming he can get and stay healthy).
If the Falcons' go with an offensive line of (left to right) Matthews-Justin Blalock-Joe Hawley-Jon Asamoah-Lamar Holmes, they can survive, assuming the young guys develop.