Our own James Rael and Dave Choate debate the merits of starting Sam Baker versus Will Svitek. We hope you'll find it to be an interesting read.
Being a Sam Baker advocate is akin to drinking Busch products in Milwaukee. Sure, it's allowed, but it's not particularly popular, and I'd recommend against doing it in public. Unpopular as it may be, here's the case for Baker:
Baker's been heavily criticized as-of-late. Actually, his critics debuted a long time ago. Long story short, he's not your typical first-round LT. If you take a LT in the first round, then you expect to net a roster fixture that can last a decade or more. But Baker was selected just shy of the second round, and if we're honest with ourselves, that's something we've lost sight of. He's struggled with pass protection, staying healthy, and - above all else - keeping it real. The best of Baker is yet to come, or so I think.
Baker's status is inextricably tied to the salary he's due. He has one year left on his rookie contract and he's due a considerable raise next year. Let me be clear though, I'd never suggest that Baker should start because he's a first-rounder/makes more than Svitek. There are some very tangible reasons he should start. First, he's a known commodity in the running game. Second, while many question his pass blocking ability, he's only liable for 3 of the 22 sacks our O-Line has allowed this year. To be fair, Ryan took some vicious hits early in the year, and many were attributable to Baker. But he was injured! And he's been injured for much of his career! The Falcons have generally made smart roster moves over the past few years. But releasing a player with some measure of talent - particularly before he's overcome an injury bug - has come back to bite this franchise before (example: our WR corps without Laurent Robinson).
It's easy to forget how good Baker was in 2008. In the third game of his career, he absolutely owned Kyle Vanden Bosch. KVB was coming off a year where he led the league in adjusted QB hits. He's demonstrated above-average agility clearing the way for Burner time-and-time-again, and I just don't think those were fluke occurrences. He's a average LT that's been injured a lot, but those injuries won't define him. Give Svitek all the credit in the world; one bad game and his fan base will shrink measurably. Bet on it.
Will Svitek has played exceptionally well at left tackle. He's had, by my very informal count, a handful of holding calls and no sacks allowed over five starts. In that time, he's faced off against Dwight Freeney, Jared Allen and Kyle Vanden Bosch. None of those guys are slouches.
Perhaps it's my low expectations talking, but Svitek has impressed the hell out of me. His footwork is far more sound that it has been in past guest appearances as a starting tackle, and he has enough strength to hold his own against some pretty potent edge rushers. He also doesn't have tiny, stubby T. Rex arms, unlike certain unnamed tackles named Sam Baker.
With Svitek joining Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Joe Hawley and Tyson Clabo, the line play has stabilized. I recognize that's partly due to Garrett Reynolds warming the bench, but it's kind of hard to deny that
The cost factor is important here, too. Going forward, the Falcons can probably lock up Svitek for a song by left tackle standards. If he can continue his production in the weeks ahead, he could be their starting tackle for the next couple of years at a bargain basement price. Baker, meanwhile, is making first-round pick scratch.
Reasons for skepticism? Primarily sample size. Svitek has been marinating on the Falcons for three seasons now and had played pretty dreadfully in relief every time he was called upon in previous years, to the point where I was ready to throw in the towel on the guy. This is a stretch of five amazing games, but it's still just five games.
So stick with what's working, I say. Vote Svitek for left tackle.