How did one of college football’s top coverage cornerbacks become one of the NFL’s worst in a matter of months?
That’s what the Giants are trying to figure out with DeAndre Baker, the player they traded up to select with the 30th overall pick in April’s draft.
Baker has struggled to adapt to the rigors — on and off the field — of the professional game. At Georgia a year ago, he was a shutdown cornerback who did not allow a touchdown in his senior season. With the Giants, through the first 10 weeks of the season, his grade of 32.2 from Pro Football Focus was last among qualifying cornerbacks.
That Baker and coach Pat Shurmur don’t agree on the nature of the problem could be a problem in itself.
Shurmur, speaking this past week, said the differences between playing cornerback in college and the NFL is so vast that it is “a different game.”
“In the college game they defend no-huddle, so they stand in one spot, they play on the right or the left, they’ll stand in one spot and wait for the offense to come out to them and then they have like 90 plays run at them,” Shurmur said. “This is more strategic, you know. There are less plays and more happening and there is a lot to learn.”
Baker told Newsday that he disagreed with that assessment. He also seemed miffed by Shurmur’s simplification of the college game.
“No, it wasn’t that easy,” Baker said when told of Shurmur’s theory. “He has his own view on college and I have mine. I just feel like it’s a little more complex than that.”
Baker, in fact, insisted that there is very little difference between college and the NFL.
“You just have to get the playbook, read the other team’s concepts and stuff like that,” he said. “But it’s basically similar. Cover your man and know your scheme and you’ll be good. It’s just a different speed of the game. That’s the only difference, really.”
Whatever the level of disparity, it’s clear that Baker is having very different results. Part of that may have to do with his own habits. He admitted after a defensive breakdown against the Cowboys two weeks ago that he has to do a better job of studying his playbook. Against the Jets last week, he took a lackadaisical angle and showed a lack of hustle on a long catch- and-run by Demaryius Thomas.
“I’ve addressed a few things,” Shurmur said when asked about that Thomas catch.
Shurmur did defend Baker’s professional habits. “He studies,” he said. “But it’s also the spatial relationship when things happen at the speed of the game. Guys are moving around.”
In other words, knowing the plays and responsibilities is one thing. Applying them in the middle of the action is quite another.
Shurmur also suggested that Baker’s position might lead to his being involved in more glaring gaffes.
“When you are on an island, there is a lot to learn,” he said. “You’re playing a position that we all notice. A lot. There are a lot of plays that go by that somebody in the core maybe wasn’t quite perfect and the play goes on. But when you are out there on the edges, you notice it.”
So is Baker a bust? Not yet. There still is time for him to turn his season around, and certainly his career. But that time is dwindling. The Giants have Sam Beal as a healthy alternative now that he has returned from injured reserve, and they have liked the way rookie Corey Ballentine has developed since his role in the defense expanded over the past two games.
The key for Baker will be taking the trials of his first 10 games and using them.
“I don’t dwell on it, I just look for opportunities to learn from it, whatever mistake or whatever play I didn’t make,” he said. “I just look at it like I’ll make it next time. Everything is just learning for me.
“And anything I learn is going to help me in the long run.”