The Arizona Cardinals might just have the best safety tandem in the NFL. Budda Baker has soared to the top of the NFL’s rankings at safety. From a Pro-Bowler as a rookie on special teams to Tyrann Mathieu’s heir apparent, Baker’s rise has been meteoric. After multiple Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro selections, Baker has established himself as not only one of Arizona’s best defensive players but as a leader and face of their defense.
Given Baker’s prestige, it’s easy to understand why a supplemental draft pick from the 2019 draft class that also featured some guy called Kyler Murray can get lost in the shuffle. Yet, here in 2021, just as Baker once did, Jalen Thompson is experiencing a breakout season. Between the pair, their performances have helped what was expected to be a weak and inexperienced secondary to become a strength of this historic Cardinals side. Should this trajectory continue, Baker and Thompson will cement themselves as the best safety tandem in the NFL.
Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson: The Best Safety Tandem In The NFL
Baker Is Arizona’s Blueprint
Arizona’s usage of Baker is excellent; a symbiotic relationship exists where Vance Joseph‘s system fully and efficiently utilizes Baker’s abilities. They put him down in the box, send him after the quarterback, drop him into deep coverage, or lock him up on a receiver one-versus-one. Baker is one of the primary reasons why Arizona’s defense is so fluid. They can present a whole host of different looks play-to-play that function with more or less the same personnel. In fact, two of the most prominent identifying features of Joseph’s defense, this fluidity and his penchant for disguising coverages, are greatly facilitated by Baker’s all-encompassing skillset; he is effective in any spot on the field, and opposing offenses will account for him wherever he lines up.
Baker is the blueprint for what this Arizona defense has become in the Kingsbury/Joseph era. The Cardinals have versatility all over their defensive unit, a trend intended to ride the coattails of Baker’s success. Particularly over the last two seasons, with the drafting of players like Zaven Collins and especially Isaiah Simmons, the Cardinals have been adding pure football players to their roster, and it’s paying dividends. They have one of the best and most versatile defensive units in the NFL, led by both a coordinator whose system gets the best out of his players and a safety in Baker whose excellence created a blueprint for what this Arizona defense has become. He had some almighty shoes to fill when the team moved on from Mathieu, but Baker has established himself as a Valley icon in his own right.
23-Year Old Thompson Is One of Arizona’s Most Consistent Players
2021 has seen Thompson become one of Arizona’s best defensive players. Injury issues last year saw him miss time, but now, uninterrupted, Thompson has been brilliant for the Cardinals. Although not quite the swiss army knife that Baker is, Thompson does share some of his running mate’s best assets. Namely, he, along with Baker, are by far the best tacklers on the entire roster. They don’t miss tackles, and when they get their hands on the ball carrier, it’s usually over. Baker and Thompson are almost certainly the best safety tandem in the NFL, in terms of tackling ability.
He’s only 23, but Thompson is a surprisingly cerebral player at safety. He has an excellent nose for the football against both the pass and the run. Combined with his physical talents, Thompson is an effective defender against the breadth of the NFL’s offensive smorgasbord. Such is his talent for reading the game that his frequent role as deep-field safety doesn’t inhibit his ability to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage. Arizona’s run defense has been decidedly average this year, a slight concern moving forward. However, Baker and Thompson have been vital in limiting the big-play ability of the opposition’s rushing attack this season. This is why the pair are regarded as not only some of Arizona’s best defensive backs but defenders in general.
Thompson is having a stellar year, and it’s helping Baker too. Thompson’s ability to be a reliable backstop for Arizona’s defense has allowed Baker to play a somewhat freer role. He’s getting around the football quicker, and his stats are showing it; Baker has already logged a single-season career-high in interceptions with three so far. Just as Baker’s skills have facilitated Joseph’s versatile system, so too has Thompson’s reliability and consistency enabled Joseph to be aggressive down at the line of scrimmage. His range as a single-high safety allows Arizona to attack down low, safe in the knowledge that Thompson can combat some of the NFL’s best deep-ball teams, like the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks.
Sunday saw both get their flowers, with the pair picking off Andy Dalton on consecutive drives to open the game. In truth, after these two plays, the game was over. The turnovers gave Murray and the offense the ball in Chicago territory on both occasions; ostensibly the pair handed control of the game to the Cardinals immediately. They’ve been brilliant all season, and the Chicago Bears game demonstrated their value to not only the defense but to the team and indeed the franchise.
Arizona is an emerging market, and part of that growth is the unearthing of a few superstar players within their ranks. Baker has some respect, but, with the Cardinals ascending to the summit of the league in 2021, Thompson’s breakout year will soon turn heads on a national scale, and the pair will receive their plaudits as the best safety tandem in the NFL.
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