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Cardinals move up to grab player they coveted in Budda Baker

Washington defensive back Budda Baker runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine Monday, March 6, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

TEMPE, Ariz. — To say the Arizona Cardinals wanted Budda Baker would be a slight understatement.

They really, really, really wanted him.

Friday evening, the Cardinals sent their second, fourth and sixth-round picks in the 2017 draft, along with their fourth-round choice in the 2018 draft, to the Chicago Bears for their second and seventh-round picks in this year’s draft.

Broken down, Arizona parted with Nos. 45, 120 this year and a fourth-rounder next year to move up to No. 36 overall this year while adding the 221st pick in the 2017 draft.

“As we indicated, we were going to trust our board from the beginning, and saw an opportunity at the start to be aggressive and go up and get a player we coveted from the very beginning in Budda Baker,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. “A guy that jumped off the tape at us. Tremendous football player; has everything we want in terms of passion, football character and, like we’ve talked about over and over, a hybrid player who has the ability to play multiple positions.”

Listed at 5-foot-10 and roughly 192 pounds, Baker is a smaller safety in the same mold as Tyrann Mathieu, whom Keim compared him to. Noting Baker is a bit bigger and ran a bit faster at this stage in their careers, he offered nothing but praise for the former Washington Husky.

“There’s some foot speed, some explosiveness, has ability to play free safety, strong safety, play the nickel,” Keim added. “His sophomore year he played more of the deep half, this past year he played more nickel and some strong in situations.

“But he is an active football player, he loves the game, and he is as violent as can be.”

Seems like quite a player.

While the Cardinals may have been all-in on Baker, he said he knew the Cardinals had some interest in him but had no idea they had enough to give up what they did to land him.

“It means a lot to me just because you don’t really see that a lot and it showed how much interest that they had in me to move up all the way from the 45th pick to the 36th pick,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Keim said they made the move up because they “absolutely” did not feel like Baker would be there for them at 45.

“The grade that we had on him, and it was a unanimous thing, like grades across the board,” he said.

Keim said he and head coach Bruce Arians often discuss the grades they have on each player and how they would expect each to impact their team, and then weigh that against what they are giving up when it comes to a trade. Given the chance to part with picks for someone who they are confident will make an impact, they pulled the trigger.

Keim said he talked to some teams who said they would have considered taking Baker in the first round had the draft gone a certain way, and they felt all along he had first-round potential, so with that in mind, it makes sense why the team paid the steep price it did to acquire him.

Last season, Baker collected 70 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and two interceptions. In three seasons with the Huskies, he notched 200 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, five interceptions, 24 passes defensed and three forced fumbles.

A 2016 NCAA Consensus All-America and two-time All-Pac-12 First Team member who was also a Bednarik Award Semi-Finalist and Jim Thorpe Award Semi-Finalist in 2016, Baker comes to Arizona with quite a resume.

He understands the comparisons to Mathieu because of their body types, but pointed out that there are differences in their respective games, too.

But, he said like Mathieu he can play multiple positions in the defensive backfield while also being a good tackler in space. The Cardinals, who play a lot of sub-packages on defense, are attracted to players like that.

“When you see the 32 jersey you can’t help but think about Ty; he doesn’t quite have the ball skills Ty has, but again, a little faster,” Keim said. “And then when you think about how does he fit in our defense, again, a guy that can do multiple things and then you look at like last year, out of however many snaps we played, we were in sub about 79 percent of the time.

“So we’re talking about using three safeties 79 percent of our snaps, particularly with two guys who have the ability to play nickel. So I think this is exactly what we’ve been looking for, it’s that hybrid-type player.”

Baker said the Cardinals using three or four safeties at times is “a great thing for me.”

It could work out pretty well for both player and team, actually.

If there is one downside to be found, besides his size (which Keim said is a non-issue after he missed just one game in three years), it’s that Baker will not be able to participate in OTAs due to school obligations.

Arians said they are looking into what they are allowed to do with regards to getting him ready, though he is not concerned with Baker being prepared.

“Unbelievable football character, but even better guy,” he said. “Everybody you talk to, they just rave about (him).

“They ran the Space Needle — he was the first one up there and he was barking at everybody as they were coming up the steps.”

Though he will not be with his Cardinals teammates early in his professional career, Baker has spent some time working with some qualified teachers in former Tampa Bay star Ronde Barber and current Seahawks All-Pro Earl Thomas.

He has learned plenty from both, he said, which should help him be better prepared for the NFL. But when it comes to motivation, he said he feeds off the doubt people have for smaller players as well as his mother, who is a cancer survivor who is battling other illnesses.

“I just feel like anger within her,” he said. “I always hear people talking about how it’s hard, like, running these gassers are hard and then I think about my mom and how she has doctor’s appointments every day, getting stuck with IV’s, taking certain pills every day.

“When people say that, it just makes me mad because I feel like all that (football) stuff is easy but when you’re in the hospital constantly, that’s hard.”

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