With the ability to focus on just one position this year, defensive end Chris Baker has seen his productivity skyrocket so far in 2015, becoming the team's most consistent defensive lineman.
Tony Romo. James Harrison. Arian Foster.
When football fans think of all the current NFL players who went undrafted and are excelling in the league, perhaps they wouldn't bunch the Redskins defensive end in with the Romos, Harrisons and Fosters of the world.
But midway through the 2015 season, it's Baker that is outperforming them all.
A menace to opposing quarterbacks and in the run game, the fourth-year Hampton product affectionately known as "Swaggy" is turning in a career year for first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry, already establishing a career high with 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
In fact, Baker has played so well that Barry says he's getting a little "greedy."
"Bake has done a nice job," Barry said. "We challenge him every day. We want more. ... And he's taken that challenge and really ran with it this season."
Maturation processBaker is seen now as a gentle giant; a lovable personality both on and off the field that is a huge problem for opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks.
A countdown of the top-10 images of defensive lineman Chris Baker during the 2014 season.
But that's not to say the 6-foot-2, 325 Windsor, Conn., native hasn't had some major bumps and bruises along the way.
Baker started his college career at Penn State, where in his first two seasons in 2006 and 2007, he registered 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 20 games under head coach Joe Paterno. But Baker said he tended to follow the crowd a bit too much at Penn State, and always wanted to be a part of the action.
Instead of walking away from a fight, Baker would be a willing participant, and often found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time – even if he wasn't the one throwing punches.
In June 2007, Baker was expelled from school and suspended from the team after his alleged involvement in two separate fights. It was a major wake-up call for the rising college junior, who had NFL aspirations, but knew he had a significant hill to climb to get back on that track.
Baker transferred to Hampton University that year, where he said he matured both on and off the field.
In 2008, he posted 69 tackles (32 solo), 8.5 sacks and blocked a kick, and with his new-found maturity, he was able to get back on some NFL teams' radars. He signed with the Broncos as a college free agent in April 2009, and, six years later, is a starting defensive end for the Washington Redskins.
Along the way, Baker has been sure to tell those around him – especially children – how to avoid the same mistakes he made.
"Now I always share my message, and when you see trouble, go the other way because it is easy to get in trouble and hard to get out," Baker said. "So you've got to make decisions and think about the bigger picture instead of that immediate rush that you get from seeing a fight or seeing something bad happen."
Baker will often tell children to do the right thing, get good grades and create goals for themselves, because that's exactly what he did when he transferred to Hampton, where he served as vice president of his class his junior and senior years.
Washington Redskins Chris Baker kicked off a literacy program at Wheatley Education Campus on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014.
And with everything Baker has learned along the way, he wanted to create an avenue in which he could make a tangible difference in children's lives. So he recently launched his own foundation, the Chris Baker 92 Foundation, to help aid school children from grades 3 through 5 prepare for higher levels of education.
Targeting that age group is important, Baker said, because if children have not learned to read by third grade, then they can be considered a failure by some school systems. The program is also beneficial for teachers, because it enables them to target specific weakness areas in their students.
"I just want them to know that my foundation is really just to help kids out in any way possible, whether it is through mentorship if they are going into high school, or whether it is just helping them get better in whatever areas they struggle at in school, whether it's English or Math," Baker said.
And, in continued off-the-field successes, Baker recently announced that his wife, Jamila, is pregnant with the couple's first child.
Sure, it's easy to rally behind Baker with his off-the-field endeavors, but it's his play on the field that is already catching plenty of attention this season.
His story as an undrafted free agent is one many have attempted, but few can duplicate.
Baker was signed by the Denver Broncos as a college free agent in 2009 before bouncing around the Broncos and Miami Dolphins' practice squads and eventually signing with the Redskins in September 2011. He was brought up to the active roster three months later, and has been improving ever since.
Baker has contributed as both a defensive end and as a nose tackle in the Redskins' 3-4 defensive front, and started a career-best 12 games last season, posting career highs in tackles (39) while adding a sack.
But the coaches always saw a player on film in Baker who flashed at times throughout a game, but needed a little bit more consistency.
So this offseason, Baker worked his tail off to cut some weight and add some more muscle to his frame.
He also benefitted from the offseason acquisition of nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, who just happens to be Baker's best friend.
The move solidified Baker at the left defensive end position, giving him a primary focus this offseason.
"He plays the left side and he can just focus on his matchup," Knighton said. "He watches tape; watches a lot of tape. I give him a lot of pointers of things that I've seen. He asks a lot of questions, and he's just happy to get the recognition he deserves and the opportunity to start."
The hard work has definitely paid off to this point of the season. Through eight games, Baker has amassed 36 tackles — just three shy of a career-best — and already has a career-high 3.5 sacks (tied for the team lead with linebacker Ryan Kerrigan) with two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and 13 quarterback pressures.
"He's on the field more, is in the best shape of his life, and I think the game is finally slowing down for him," Knighton said. "The more you play the easier the game gets."
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden, like Barry, has been impressed with Baker's play this season.
And, like Barry, Gruden wants to see even more growth and consistency out of Baker over the team's final eight games.
"I think he's been our most disruptive lineman, which is good. He's been good in the pass rush, and obviously in the run game he gets great penetration," Gruden said. "Chris has done an outstanding job of that so far. We need it more consistent to move forward."