Chase Baker isn’t the next man up. He’s two men behind the next man up.
He’s the undersized guy with the unusual number (62) who comes into focus when a once-promising backup (Christian Ballard) leaves for personal reasons, when a prized first-round pick (Sharrif Floyd) has a minor knee procedure, when a potential future Hall of Famer (Kevin Williams) has his right knee buckled by an unnecessary cut block.
“He’s the guy who comes in on the bottom and takes that big step,” said Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, a long-ago bottom-feeder who built himself into a $14 million-a-year All-Pro. “He’s probably grown the most of all the young guys I’ve seen in camp. That’s good because he just might be asked to play a role on this team. We’re hurting at D-tackle right now.”
That sounds strange to hear when you consider the Vikings were loaded at the position just a few weeks ago. But this is the NFL. Things change. They might change back, but you never know.
One summer, a Chase Baker is a rookie free agent being duct-taped to a goal post having Pepto-Bismol dumped over his head. The next summer, he’s being asked to learn the three-technique tackle spot while staying up to speed at nose tackle. Why? Because teammates keep disappearing from practice and the opener is a week and a half away.
“When Sharrif had the thing with his knee last week, they moved me over,” said Baker, who spent all of last season on the Vikings’ practice squad. “It’s unfortunate these things happen, but it is an opportunity for me. Shoot, if I keep doing what I’ve been doing, I can show the Vikings and every other team what I got on Thursday night.”
Thursday night is the preseason finale against the Titans at Mall of America Field. Per NFL tradition, it’s the worst night of football the entire season. Most starters don’t play and nearly all of the position battles are for spots down the depth chart.
Baker is one of those guys who will see extended playing time Thursday. He already has a team-high two tackles for loss because, well, he’s probably played as much as any defensive player on the roster.
The Vikings still hope to have Williams back for the opener. And Floyd is expected to be ready. But in the NFL, hoping and expecting are risky propositions without a Plan B, C or D.
When the Vikings lined up for practice Tuesday, they had six defensive tackles participate. Starting nose tackle Letroy Guion moved to three-technique, making room for backup nose Fred Evans to work with the first unit. The other three tackles besides Baker were rookies Spencer Nealy, Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins.
Of those six healthy tackles, Baker also was the only one to have every possible liquid dumped over his head while duct-taped to the goalpost in Mankato a year ago.
“Why did we do it?” Allen asked. “Because the guy wouldn’t sing.”
“And he refused to dance,” defensive end Brian Robison added.
Apparently, Baker is a really bad singer and dancer. Which sounds about right when you look at the 6-2, 300-pounder.
“I refused to do it, but they kept asking me,” Baker said. “Probably dumb on my part. Rookie mistake.”
Finally, the veterans had enough and tried to trick the rookie into thinking they were going to do “some extra hand work” on the goalpost. Ballard, who had gotten taped and doused the year before, clued Baker in ahead of time.
“I started to run,” Baker said. “I made it 10 yards and then just gave up. It wasn’t worth it. I took my medicine.”
“The Pepto was the worst,” Baker said. “It stained everything.”
There were other liquids. Gatorade. Pickle juice. Some ointments. And a baby powder chaser.
“There wasn’t much we didn’t dump on that guy,” Robison said. “Except acid and liquid nitrogen.”
Years ago, then first-round draft pick Erasmus James made things worse for himself when he got visibly upset and emotional after veterans doused his clothes in water and set them outside to freeze. Baker, on the other hand, was accepted under the wings of the veterans when he laughed his way through the NFL hazing.
“He’s really shown us a lot since he’s been here,” Robison said. “We need that last guy on the D-line to step up. Thursday night could be a big night for Chase.”