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'Football junkie' Baker could fill Browns' need at safety

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    Washington defensive back Budda Baker, left, tackles Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks (8) to force an incomplete pass during the first half at the 108th Apple Cup at Husky Stadium in Seattle on Nov. 27, 2015.

    LINDSEY WASSON / SEATTLE TIMES / TNS

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Jimmy Lake, the University of Washington’s co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach, had an unexpected roommate over the last three years.

Maybe squatter is more accurate.

Budda Baker’s film study meant a lot of quality time for coach and player.

“He lived in my office,” Lake said in a phone interview. “In the offseason, he’s always studying himself and the scheme. During the season, he’s studying the opponent.”

Lake got used to the game-day texts that included a film clip and looking for confirmation on a specific defensive call.

“He’s a football junkie,” Lake said. “He lives and breathes football. He cares about it so much. Whoever gets him is going to be lucky.”

Baker was a three-year starter at safety for the Huskies, totaling 200 tackles, 13ᄑ tackles for loss, five interceptions, 24 passes defended, four sacks and three forced fumbles. He was a consensus All-American in 2016 and entered the NFL Draft after his junior season.

Baker is projected to go late in the first round or early in the second — the Browns need at least one starting safety and could take Baker at No. 33 to start the second round — and CBS draft analyst Dane Brugler ranks him the third safety behind Ohio State’s Malik Hooker and LSU’s Jamal Adams.

Lake said some teams have talked about using Baker as a cornerback, but the coach believes a hybrid role suits him best.

“He’s your No. 1 nickel,” Lake said. “He can do it all. Blitz, cover, stop the run, spin back to play post with 4.35 speed that covers sideline to sideline.”

The nickelback position becomes more valuable each season as teams go with more three- and four-receiver formations. Lake said Baker will have no problem playing free safety in the base defense and moving up to nickel in passing situations.

“I love him at nickel,” Lake said. “He loves to tackle, loves to hit. He’s a combination corner, safety, linebacker. He’s smart enough to handle it all.”

The biggest knock on Baker is his lack of size. He’s 5-foot-9ᄑ, 195 pounds and seemingly at a greater risk for injury.

“I can’t really get mad,” he said at the combine. “God made me this height and all I can say is watch the film. We always talk about how the film will set you free, so no matter how tall you are, how big you are, if you watch the film everything will take care of itself.”

Baker spent plenty of time near the line of scrimmage and wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in the middle of the action.

“He doesn’t think about size,” Lake said. “He knows one way to play. No one’s going to be able to match his heart and his willingness to study football and become a great player.”

Browns defensive tackle Danny Shelton played with Baker for a season and credits him with helping to turn around the Washington program. Shelton said he knew early Baker had an NFL future.

“He doesn’t have the size that most DBs need, but he has the effort and he’s not afraid to lay somebody out,” Shelton said.

Lake and Baker point to Seattle’s Earl Thomas (5-10, 208) and Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu (5-9, 186) as examples of undersized safeties succeeding in the NFL. Thomas is a three-time All-Pro and Mathieu was honored once.

“I love Earl Thomas, the way he plays the game,” Baker said. “Whatever he is doing he is always next to the ball, wreaking havoc. And I watch Tyrann Mathieu because of his versatility. He can play corner, nickel or safety.”

“You watch Earl’s film from Texas and Matheiu from LSU, they’re like blurs on the screen,” Lake said. “Budda plays 100 mph. He practices that way. Their games match each other.”

Another Washington defensive back who could draw the Browns’ interest is Sidney Jones (6-0, 186). He started 39 games and was in the mix to be the first cornerback drafted before suffering a torn Achilles tendon during Washington’s pro day. Lake expects him to open the season on the injured list and be activated about Week 6.

“And be a big-time corner for the next decade,” Lake said. “If he slips (in the draft), whoever gets him will get a big-time lock.

“He and Budda were tied at the hip. They’re both football junkies.”

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.



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