Sean Baker made a good first impression on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaches. His last act – or perhaps not his last act – wasn't too shabby either.
An undrafted free agent safety out of Ball State, Baker wasn't immediately signed by the Buccaneers or any of the NFL's other 31 teams after the 2012 draft. Instead, he had to rely on an invitation to take part in Tampa Bay's rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract. In one short weekend, he showed enough to convince the Bucs' to keep him around while they simultaneously let go of some of their first post-draft signees.
Since then, Baker has toiled, relatively anonymously, through the Bucs' OTA practices, mini-camps and training camp weeks. He was part of a safety group that had many more high-profile stories, from the arrival of seventh-overall pick Mark Barron to the conversion of long-time cornerback Ronde Barber to that position. Ahmad Black, Larry Asante and rookie Keith Tandy added even more depth to the group.
On Friday night, however, as the Buccaneers played their final preseason game at Washington, just two days before they would have to trim the roster from 75 men to 53, it was Baker who stood out among all the team's defenders.
During a largely unremarkable night in which the Redskins' reserves posted a 30-3 win over the Buccaneers, Baker racked up six tackles, two interceptions, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery. He was responsible for all three of the team's defensive takeaways. That was his last impression – as in, his final chance to strengthen his resume before those roster cuts.
"Hopefully [it was] a good one," said Baker. "I came out here since day one and I'm just busting my tail. I'm doing everything I can to get better and to help the team win, and everything will fall into place."
After the game, Baker mostly side-stepped the question of the upcoming roster moves or how he might have helped himself. He politely repeated that he was simply trying to do his job within the framework of the Bucs' game plan. Even when discussing his second interception, on which he ranged over from the middle of the field to the right sideline to snare a deep ball intended for the speedy Brandon Banks, Baker gave credit to the cornerback who had kept Banks in tight coverage.
"I was just out here trying to help the team win, doing my job and what the coaches ask me to do," said Baker. "I was just trying to execute the game plan the coaches put in and do my job. That was all I was trying to do, not step out of my boundaries, just stay within the game plan, execute and help my team win."
He can't know, of course, if his performance on Wednesday night helped his long-term cause. He does believe, however, that he has made the most of the last four months since the Bucs gave him a shot.
"The difference in competition from college to the NFL, you can't even compare it," he said. "There's a lot of adjusting to it, but being around these guys helped me out a lot. There are a lot of good veteran players, great coaches, and I feel like the whole process went smoothly."
An undrafted rookie or two (or sometimes more) makes the Buccaneers' 53-man roster almost every year. Others who don't immediately find a spot on the active roster do get a foothold on the practice squad, which can lead to a promotion later. Perhaps Baker will end up in one of those two groups, but he wasn't letting it weigh on him Wednesday night after the game.
"We'll find out here how it goes," he said. "It's out of my hands. All I knew was that I could keep working, keep a good attitude and keep bringing it every day."