Jim Haslett was speaking to reporters just off to the side of one of the practice fields in Richmond in August when he felt a familiar presence approaching from behind.
Chris Baker, the Redskins’ effervescent defensive lineman, slipped up and stuck his head into the media scrum, temporarily halting questions about disguising blitzes and the development of the defensive backs.
With beads of sweat streaming down his cheeks and a beaming smile on his face, Baker locked eyes with Haslett and guffawed before coolly showing himself out, but not before the defensive coordinator could make a crack about photobombs and selfies.
“The ‘Big Wiggle,’” Haslett said. “I love him.”
Baker has endeared himself to his teammates and coaches for years, partly because of his easygoing, good-natured personality. Now, after spending parts of three seasons toiling on a practice squad and two more as a rotational player, Baker finally has a chance to make his name known to the general public as well.
After entering the season pegged as the starter at left defensive end, Baker will assume a role as the Redskins’ starting nose tackle for the next two months following news that Barry Cofield would be out at least that long because of a high right ankle sprain.
SEE ALSO: After ankle injury, Redskins put Barry Cofield on short-term injured reserve
“It means a lot,” Baker said. “To be able to come in as a starter was a blessing for me, and a huge opportunity for me to show the coaches and show the rest of people that I’m a hell of a football player.”
Undrafted out of Hampton in 2009, where he played one season after three at Penn State, Baker bounced from Denver’s practice squad to Miami’s, and then to Washington’s in 2011. He was signed to the 53-man roster for the first time that December, but the stay lasted a day; while trying to prove to teammates that he could dunk a basketball, the 6-foot-2, 329-pound Baker tore a quadriceps, costing him the rest of the season.
According to the NFL, there were a combined 229 undrafted players on teams’ active rosters, reserve lists and practice squads as of the midpoint last week — roughly 10 percent of all players currently in the league.
Though the league couldn’t provide a breakdown by experience, a sizeable proportion of those players are either rookies or on the practice squad. Few undrafted players, outside of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and Houston running back Arian Foster, have displayed the ability to stay in the league as long as Baker.
“Just the adversity that he’s faced shows how strong he is and shows his true character,” said Damik Scafe, a defensive end currently on San Diego’s practice squad who was a high school teammate of Baker’s in Windsor, Connecticut. “You can’t describe that level of heart and will and determination.”
Baker has been able to survive because of his versatility. Originally a nose tackle, which is perhaps his most natural position, the Redskins moved him outside at the start of last season because they believed his athleticism and his strength would make him a strong pass rusher.
SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: A year ago, NFL used Ray Rice jersey to market apparel to women
He played approximately 20 percent of all defensive snaps in 2012, then 40 percent last year, when he had 27 tackles and dropped Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler for his only sack. The uptick in playing time came as part of Baker’s continued maturation, as the team felt comfortable using him in its nickel package and, for the last three games of the season, as the starting right end with Stephen Bowen on injured reserve.
“We always knew Bake was good,” said defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, who Baker replaced this offseason as a starter. “The main thing was he had to get it [mentally], as far as being in the moment, knowing the situation, and not doing those rookie mistakes. He’s been in the league. He’s recognized those mistakes now, and he’s grown from it, you know? He was rewarded those last five or six games. He came on stronger than anybody on our defense.”
Just because Baker has matured, however, doesn’t mean he’s grown up. After noticing running back Lache Seastrunk grooving to the rhythm of the music during warm-ups in training camp, Baker decided one day to challenge him to a dance contest, ending it before it began merely by gyrating in Seastrunk’s general direction.
When rookie Silas Redd, another undrafted player, made the initial 53-man roster last week, Baker walked by reporters and teased the running back about his newfound superstar status before joining in to ask a question about representing Connecticut, their home state.
That sense of levity has helped Baker cope with the uncertain future that often comes with being a football player on the periphery of the roster. Now firmly a part of it, there are other ways he hopes he can make an impact.
“I’m a resilient player, but I’ve always been a player no matter where I was positioned,” Baker said. “I knew if I had a chance and an opportunity to show my skills, I would be OK. As long as I had that chance and that opportunity, I always did well. For the coaches and the players to believe in me, to be a starter — it’s a blessing, and you know, I don’t take it for granted.”