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Op-Ed: Budda Baker short-changed by Cardinals but not by NFL coaches and peers

Budda Baker was named to his 6th Pro Bowl in 7 seasons

Arizona Cardinals v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

How often have Arizona Cardinals fans seen one of their own home-grown players garner at least 6 Pro Bowls and 2 1st team NFL All-Pro accolades in his first 7 seasons?

The answer is Patrick Peterson (3 1st Team All-Pros and 7 straight Pro Bowls from 2011-2018) and now Budda Baker (2 1st Team All-Pros, 1 2nd-Team All-Pro and 6 Pro Bowls).

Yet, some Cardinals fans are taking to social media to claim that this year Budda Baker didn’t deserve the honor.

I am here this morning to state an opinion that Michael Bidwill, Monti Ossenfort and Jonathan Gannon have done wrong with Budda Baker.

On the very day that Monti Ossenfort was hired as the Cardinals’ successor to Steve Keim, Ossenfort said of Budda Baker:

“Budda Baker represents everything that we want this organization to be and I am excited to be on a team with him,”

“I distinctly remembered I was with the Patriots at the time and Budda came in (before the 2017 draft),” we (Bill Belichick, and the Patriots’ brass) interviewed Budda at the combine for our 20-minute interview. After the end of that 20-minute interview, I think I was ready to run through a brick wall for Budda Baker and I just relayed that story to him.”

Hmmm...run through a brick wall, Monti?

If Ossenfort was going to run through a brick wall for Budda Baker, then he should have put the team’s money where his mouth was.

This just in —- 5-time Pro Bowlers and 2-time All-Pros at the age of 27 are not going to play on a contract that has become void of guaranteed money. Every GM, agent and All-Star player in the NFL knows the truth about how contracts are structured at the time in which they were signed.

Budda rightfully understood that Steve Keim set up his 2nd contract (4 year $59M extension with $33M guaranteed) so that when the guaranteed money was gone —- it would be time to sign Budda to his 3rd contract. That’s the way those type of contracts work.

But now that Steve Keim was gone, Budda found himself at the mercy of Michael Bidwill and Monti Ossenfort, neither of whom appeared eager willing to draw up a 3rd contract for the team’s franchise player and perennial superstar.

The tremendous irony is that for all of the premature long-term 2nd contracts that Bidwill and Keim agreed to —- Budda Baker was the only player to keep up his end of the bargain.

Budda Baler handsomely rewarded the front office’s faith in him. Like Domino’s Pizza —- he delivered.

Other long term 2md contracts in question: Tryan Matthieu, David Johnson, D.J. Humphries, Kyler Murray.

Ask yourself —- have these players perform on a level commensurate to the high-end salaries they were/are making?

Only Budda —- he stands alone.

If there was any player on the roster that Jonathan Gannon inherited whom he should have hitched his wagon to —- that player should have been, without a single question —- Budda Baker.

Why then did Gannon look in other directions?

Why then did Gannon hitch his wagon to players who were less deserving?

Gannon was a safety himself in high school at St. Ignatius (Cleveland, OH) and as a freshman at the University of Louisville.

How could a defensive-minded head coach miss this:(click on short video)

#19 Budda Baker (S, Cardinals) | Top 100 Players in 2021 (youtube.com)

Notice what George Kittle (SF), Justin Juszczyk (SF) and Miles Sanders (PHI) had to say about Budda?

If you were Jonathan Gannon, wouldn’t you want to do everything possible to have Budda Baker in the building by his side to lead the team through OTAs?

Yet, instead of making things right with Budda Baker from the get-go, Monti Ossenfort sat inside the brick walls of his office and allowed Budda’s contract situation to fester —- for months.

Feeling exasperated, on April 14th, Budda publicly asked to be traded.

The NFL Draft came and went —- and nothing had changed. The team was without Budda for OTAs. He did report to mandatory mini-camp, but he did not practice, as advised by his agent.

Finally on July 27th, just as training camp was starting a compromise was made. Ossenfort agreed to give Budda $13.6M in guaranteed money for the 2023 season. While the deal suggested he also received a raise for 2024, the fact is the contract compromise for 2023 was just kicking the can down the road. Why? Because, once again, Budda is heading into a season without any guaranteed money left in his contract.

2024 Figures:

  • Base Salary: $14.2M (not guaranteed)
  • Cap Hit: $18.525M
  • Dead Cap: $$3.925M

Therefore, Monti Ossenfort needs to make the decision to re-sign Budda Baker long-term or to trade him.

The False Perception that Budda is Having a Down Year:

The bummer for Budda Baker this season is that in Jonathan Gannon’s defense, coordinated by Nick Rallis, he no longer has been featured with the versatility he had with Vance Joseph.

Last week as a guest on the Eagles’ SB Nation podcast, I asked host John Stolnis why Eagles fans were very critical of Jonathan Gannon’s defensive approach, he said:

  • lack of creativity
  • too many WRs and TEs open in his heavily-used zone coverages
  • not nearly enough blitzes
  • mostly reliant on players winning one-on-one battles which was not quite as effective versus stronger teams

Budda Baker has long been considered one of the most prolific blitzers from the safety position. Do you know how many times, Budda has been called on to blitz this season?

20

Do you know how any times Budda blitzed last year?

65

His lack of blitzing is why his overall PFF grade is lower than normal, because his pass rushing grade is 49.1, by far the lowest of his career.

Only 3 players on the Cardinals defense have run defense grades above 60:

  • 75.1 —- Zaven Collins
  • 66.2 —- Budda Baker
  • 63.4 —- Roy Lopez

Who has the highest tackling grade on the team?

  • 80.0 —- Budda Baker
  • 75.7 —- B.J. Ojulari
  • 74. 4 —- Kyzir White
  • These two stats right here tell you that Budda is balling like usual this year.

Where Budda has struggled some this season is in pass coverage (63.8, down from 69.1 last season). He’s given up 11 catches on 18 targets (61%) for 176 yards, 3 TDs, 0 ints., 0 pbus.

However, if you have carefully scrutinized Gannon’s pass coverages, he often tries to disguise man coverage by off-setting the strong safety and the linebackers. As a result, teams that have their TEs and WRs run option routes away from leverage (like the Rams and 49ers) have been carving up Gannon’s defense with ease.

One of the great disadvantages the Cardinals’ inside linebackers and safeties have in Gannon’s man coverage is how they are asked to cover TEs when they are lined up either inside between the tackles or to the outside of the TE.

Case in point. During the Cardinals’ home game versus the 49ers a few weeks ago, Budda was lined up on the edge to the outside of TE George Kittle. This was on a key 3rd and long. Thus, Budda was showing blitz. On the snap he took two hard steps toward the QB as a decoy and then turned back to chase Kittle. Kittle was well up field by then and Budda had no chance. It was an easy-peasy wide-open throw for Brock Purdy and a 26-yard conversion. It made the Cardinals coaches and players look foolish. The coverage made no sense.

I mean, who leaves George Kittle wide open in the middle of the field on a 3rd and long?

The only way to cover George Kittle one-on-one is to line up directly across from him, press him off the snap and run a stride-for-stride shadow of him on his routes. ideally, with safety help over the top of the route.

The Cardinals second level zone defenders do not do a good job of picking up the receiver in their zone and covering him until they can pass him off to the teammate in the next area of the zone. That’s has far too often made for wide-open catches between the 2nd and 3rd levels —- which should be attributed to the 2nd level defenders’ mistakes —- but because they are often nowhere in sight, the 3rd level defenders are assigned the blame.

Thus, what we have seen so often is that the deep safeties get sucked up to be back end of the 2nd level because of open WRs and TEs who blew right by the 2nd level defenders —- only to see the pass go over their heads for deep strikes. Budda and Jalen have been the victims of that on far too many occasions.

Lastly, in the goal-line defense, Gannon has the safeties lining up 5 yards deep into the end zone —- where they have little to no chance covering a TE man to man.

Case in point —- do you remember the Eagles’ TD pass from Jalen Hurts to a wide-open TE Dallas Goedert by the right pylon? His man on that play was Budda Baker, but because the coaches had Budda lined up 5 yards deep into the end zone to disguise a zone look, Budda got easily caught in traffic by DeVonta Smith who was running a mid-range dig route.

Again, it’s a pass to a wide-open receiver that makes the coaches and players look foolish.

Budda had no chance on that play. But he gets the demerit.

Budda is taking superb care of what he can control on the field, by remaining the Cardinals’ best and most reliable tackler and the team’s crackerjack, as always, in run and screen support. He’s not being used as creatively as he has in the past and the shortcomings of the team’s pass coverages have been especially difficult on Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson —- not on the 2nd level —- but on the 3rd.

Why Did the NFL Coaches and Players Vote for Budda?

This is the easy part.

Here is what they saw over the past two seasons with the help, at times, of HBO’s Hard Knocks:

  • A perennial Pro Bowler, who was balling is tail off while his team was getting trounced and embarrassed by the Rams in the 2021 playoffs —- to the point of incurring a brutal head injury which briefly rendered him unconscious and culminated in him being strapped to a gurney and speeded away in an ambulance to the nearest hospital.
  • A consummate leader who the very next season after rehabbing from his concussion, Budda elected to lead the team in OTAs, while the QB and the vast majority of the team’s offensive starters were no-shows.
  • In 2022, playing like his pants were on fire during what was a predictably awful season —- while playing through an assortment of injuries (high ankle sprain, for one) that many players would have taken weeks off to recover from.
  • Despite recovering from the fractured shoulder that he tried to play through versus Tom Brady and the Bucs in Week 16, s he showed up big-time at last year’s Pro Bowl and provided major juice, great defense and non-stop fun.
  • This —- always this:
  • The NFL players and coaches know the physical and mental sacrifices Budda has always made for the Cardinals, through the best of times and the worst of times.
  • Budda Baker is perhaps the most sudden and fundamental tackler on the planet.
  • They know and appreciate the sacrifices he has been making this season having to forge through a painful team rebuilding phase while being deprived of the contract he so richly deserves.
  • The players and coaches know, the first thing they need to know when they play the Cardinals is to determine on every snap, “Where is Budda?”
  • And hey, if you are picking a team, who wouldn’t jump on Budda Baker?

I hope the Cardinals smell the coffee and do right by Budda this off-season.

ROTB Poll:

Poll

What do you think the Cardinals will do with Budda Baker this off-season?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Make him play out the last year of his contract ($18.5M) that currently has no money guaranteed
    (23 votes)
  • 61%
    Sign him to a new multi-year extension
    (139 votes)
  • 26%
    Trade him and recover $13+M in cap space with $3.9M in dead cap money
    (59 votes)
  • 2%
    Other
    (5 votes)
226 votes total Vote Now

The Cardinals’ Mount Rushmore Secondary:

RCB —- 22 —- Roger Wehrli:

  • 1st Round pick 1969
  • 5 X NFL 1st Team All-Pro
  • 7 X Pro Bowler

FS —- 8 —- Larry Wilson:

  • 7th round pick 1960
  • NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1966
  • 6 X NFL 1st Team All-Pro
  • 8 X Pro Bowler

SS —- 3 —-Budda Baker: (do yourself a favor and watch this Baldy Breakdown with Budda and Kurt Warner —- this is pricelss)

Budda Baker Breaks Down Ball Pursuit, Tackling, & Coverage | NFL Film Sessions (youtube.com)

  • 2nd Round pick 2017
  • 2 X 1st Team NFL All-Pro
  • 6 X Pro Bowler

LCB —- 35 —-Aeneas Williams:

  • 3rd Round pick 1991
  • 3 X 1st team NFL All=Pro
  • 8 X Pro Bowler

I never in my wildest dreams thought a Cardinals player could make a position group Mount Rushmore at age 27 in just his 7th season. But Budda Baker already has more 1st team All-Pros and Pro Bowls than Adrian Wilson (who was my choice for all-time SS until last year).

It’s lamentable to think the NFL knows and appreciates Budda Baker’s value more than the Cardinals.

For the sake of my favorite Cardinals player, I am just glad that the NFL players and coaches around the league do.