Rashad Baker makes for a nice story: He has spent five seasons in the NFL in four cities and now comes home to Philadelphia to show what he can do. The Camden, N.J. native is one of those who-is-he? signings that maybe, just maybe, will pay off for the Eagles in 2009.
What the Eagles are doing at this point in free agency is looking for competition and depth for training camp. Baker is probably good enough to come and, if he assimilates to the system, make the team as a fourth safety, help on special teams and give the Eagles a good cover safety who has enough speed to run sideline to sideline. He came on last year for the Raiders, making a career-high three interceptions -- two against Jake Delhomme and Carolina and one in that big-to-the-Eagles victory over Jeff Garcia and Tampa Bay on the final Sunday of the regular season.
Baker lacks ideal size -- he is listed at 5 feet 10, 200 pounds -- but he is a low-risk signing at this point in free agency that adds another player with starter's experience to a safety group that lost Brian Dawkins and Sean Considine in free agency.
Here is the ESPN.com Insiders scouting report on Baker, so take it for what it's worth ...
"Baker has been a career backup over his five seasons in the league. He has average size for the position but possesses good speed, quickness and agility to be an effective safety. Baker is best in coverage in combination man and zone schemes; he has instincts and vision to make plays on the ball. He can be somewhat of a liability as a run-defender. Baker isn't physical to fill the alley. Baker was banged up much of the season -- missing six games in 2008 -- but he has value if used as a deep safety with coverage being his main responsibility."
And so there you go. Hometown kid comes home after starring at Tennessee, bouncing around the league and earning a rep and now he has a chance to play in front of his friends and family. Baker should be extremely motivated to win a job. He is someone to watch, obviously, in training camp.
The bigger question is not Baker, but the position itself and, really, the approach the Eagles are taking in free agency. They obviously had holes to fill as Dawkins and Considine left. The Eagles are creating a very competitive situation there, and they may not be done yet addressing the position. They have enough draft picks in April to select a prospect or two they like.
What the Eagles have now is options at safety. Plenty of them, it seems. Quintin Mikell is the one sure thing, an on-the-verge-of-the-Pro Bowl player who can start and play very well at either safety spot. Quintin Demps is a second-year player the Eagles are very high on, but they have assured themselves that they aren't pinning all of their hope on him. Demps has to make the jump that many players make in year one to year two in the NFL. He is very talented, yes, and a hard worker, yes, but he lacks starting experience in the NFL. If he makes the leap -- and they say that a player's most significant improvement in the NFL comes from year one to year two -- Demps is going to be an outstanding, productive player in this system.
If not, the Eagles have Sean Jones, signed last week to a one-year contract, and now they have Baker. Both players are veterans in the league. Both players are still young enough to have their best football in front of them. Both players should have ample motivation, playing with one-year contracts and the expectation that an uncapped year in the NFL could be out there in 2010.
There are no real givens with this group, outside of Mikell. But it is an interesting mix of players, of talented guys, of veterans who can help very much on special teams and of a second-year man with his entire career in front of him and a starting opportunity staring him in the face.
The Eagles aren't obligated all that much to either Jones or Baker, so both have to earn jobs with strong off-seasons and pre-season performances. That makes for an ideal situation for a coaching staff: There is great hunger at safety for some one player to re-establish himself as an elite NFL safety (Jones), for one player to find a more stable niche in the league (Baker) and for one player to show early in his big-league life that he can be a standout performer (Demps).
Watch for good battles at safety. If you are unsettled that the position is, well, unsettled, don't be. Jim Johnson and his excellent defensive coaching staff will have it all sorted out before September rolls around. Hopefully, it will be a difficult decision among a group of players who are performing well in the summer.
Nobody is making out Jones or Baker to be the final, permanent, no-doubt-about-it solutions, along with Demps. The Eagles could just as easily change the dynamic of the position by using a high draft pick in April on a safety. But what the Eagles have done is cover the position with depth and experience, and at the same time they have brought in highly-motivated players who have everything to play for.
Signing Baker kind of came out of nowhere. There was no ballyhooed visit and no army of media waiting to interview him. Instead, Baker signed and then met the media via a conference call. No matter. How he performs on the field determines how much impact this move will have, and the Eagles are going to find that out in due time as they make sure they have all of their bases covered at the safety positions.