For three quarters of a season, the Chiefs have kept Baker at bay, as a healthy scratch on the bench during game day. It’s the same sort of inactive designation given to prospect players (Prince Tega Wanogho) or rarely used veterans (Laurent Duvernay-Tardif)—not exactly what anyone likely thought would happen, player or team, when Baker first signed with the team last season.
The Chiefs have now had Baker on the books for more than a year, giving him plenty of time to learn the system of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the tendencies of his teammates, the desired approach of head coach Andy Reid. Given his pedigree as the very first cornerback taken in the 2019 NFL Draft, Baker seemed a pretty safe bet to step in and upgrade the Chiefs secondary at some point. Instead, one year later, he’s sitting next to Shane Buechele while everyone else is playing.
Deandre Baker is showing late season value for the K.C. Chiefs.
However, things might be getting a bit more interesting in December for Baker and the Chiefs, as the still very young cornerback is taking on increasing importance for the team.
Coming out of the bye week, the Chiefs found themselves without cornerback Rashad Fenton, who has earned himself a regular starting role this season. Baker’s skill set matched what the Chiefs would miss with him out as a boundary corner and earned 66 percent of defensive snaps last week against the Denver Broncos. He held up reasonably well and the Chiefs looked solid as a unit against Denver’s passing attack.
This week, the Chiefs listed Fenton again as questionable heading into their game against the Las Vegas Raiders. They also listed L’Jarius Sneed as questionable as well given the uncertainty surrounding his availability. Sneed is with his family, as he should be, after hearing the horrible news that his older brother had been stabbed to death.
Given the news that cornerback Chris Lammons was already declared out for the game coming into Week 14, the Chiefs could be down three corners including a starter outside and in the slot. That means Baker could be saddled again with significant reps as the Chiefs reshuffle the deck in the secondary.
What will be interesting to see for the Chiefs is if Baker looks solid going forward. Charvarius Ward is a boundary starter who is set to make a lot of money in free agency next spring—either from the Chiefs or someone else. The Chiefs play in nickel and dime packages so often that having three to four legitimate corners is a base need for Spagnuolo. Sneed and Fenton will be back for another season in 2022, but if Baker could potentially serve as a starter there as well, his restricted status as a free agent could come in handy down the road.
The Chiefs have a few other corners around who could play a larger role next season, even if it just means in a special teams role, including Josh Jackson and DiCaprio Bootle. And the Chiefs will obviously be shoppers themselves in free agency with another draft class on the way next spring. But being able to count on a certain number of holdover performers would go a long way toward a confident offseason approach.
At the beginning of the season, Baker looked like an under appreciated asset who might be best described as a former first-round bust, but it seems the Chiefs might be finding him much more important here in the home stretch with potential future value as well.