Sam Baker is back!
And, he’s letting everybody know it.
Near the end of minicamp practice Wednesday, Baker took down an unidentified defender and punches flew. Center Joe Hawley tried to play peacemaker before everyone was pulled off the pile.
Falcons coach Mike Smith ended the practice about two minutes early, but said he was fine with the fight.
“I like it from the offensive line, defensive line, quarterback, all of them,” Smith said. “Go out and compete. … Playing on the line of scrimmage is tough duty.”
Baker, perhaps the team’s top linemen, prefers to lead by example, but something most have really sent him over the edge.
If the Falcons are going to rebound from last season’s 4-12 mark, Baker has to remain healthy and turn in a big season as quarterback Matt Ryan’s blindside protector.
Baker is coming back from left knee surgery that cut short his 2013 season. He played in the first two games before missing two games. He came back and tried to play twice, in the fourth game and the eighth game, before eventually being placed on injured reserve Nov. 13.
“It was tough, just because you fight back and then you have a little setback and have to fight back,” said Baker, who wouldn’t talk about the fight. “It seems like it’s kind of a pattern.”
Baker has played 16 games in only two of his six seasons in the NFL. In 2010 and 2012, with Baker in the lineup full-time, the Falcons were 13-3 and claimed the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the playoffs.
So, he’s used to battling back from injuries.
“You just keep working, and thankfully we have a lot of positive people in the organization that keep you going and keep you working toward coming back,” Baker said.
Baker had to watch as Lamar Holmes struggled to replace him last season.
“Yeah, it was very, very tough last year,” Baker said. “That’s just going to make me hungrier for this year and (work harder) to be out there and fighting with the guys. It was really tough, and you’ve built that bond with guys. To not be out there with the guys really hurt.”
The offensive line — rightly or wrongly — received most of the blame for last season’s collapse when the Falcons were projected to contend for the Super Bowl.
The unit has been the main focus this offseason in their pledge to win back the line of scrimmage. In addition to signing free-agent right guard Jon Asamoah and drafting right tackle Jake Matthews, the Falcons hope that Baker’s return will help stabilize the situation.
Also, offensive line coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman were hired to replace Pat Hill and Paul Dunn.
“Coach Tice has brought in a lot of good stuff for us, and really has revamped the run game,” Baker said. “We’re really happy to be working with him.”
Baker has practiced without any limitations through the OTAs and minicamp. “I’m healthy after coming off a big-time knee surgery,” Baker said. “It’s a process. They’ve brought me along in phases, and I feel pretty good right now.”
He appears mobile and nimble. In 2012, Baker played 1,073 snaps and was rated as the 27th tackle in the league by profootballfocus.com. He gave up six sacks, eight quarterback hits and 31 hurries.
Last season, Holmes, who essentially was a rookie after not playing much in 2012, finished as the 75th-rated tackle.
Baker knows that he’s just off to a good start in his return.
“Looking at tape — and I don’t want to speak for him — but it looks like he feels great,” left guard Justin Blalock said. “The way that he’s moving around, it looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. It’s evident that he’s been working his butt off with the strength staff and the training staff to get healthy and be ready for this year.”
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