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Have the Denver Broncos Unearthed an Undrafted Gem?

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For die hard fans, one of the most exciting parts of draft weekend is not only watching to see who your team picks up during the draft, but also the group of guys who are signed after the selection process as undrafted free agents.  Broncos fans have good reason to be excited, mainly because the organization found one of the best players in team history, wide receiver Rod Smith, on the post-draft free agent scrap.

Josh McDaniels has only been with the team for a year, so no undrafted player he has brought in has yet made the type of impact of a Rod Smith, or anything close for that matter.  Still, the team has recently voiced its high hopes for 2009 undrafted players like defensive tackle Chris Baker and tight end Marquez Branson

Other undrafted players on the Broncos who have already made an impact in the league as far as actual playing time goes are fan favorite and linebacker Wesley Woodyard, offensive tackle Tyler Polumbus, and cornerback Tony Carter, all of whom have started games at the NFL level.

With the depth and talent of the recent 2010 NFL Draft, perhaps a bit more excitement surrounded the post-draft festivities.  The Broncos and their fans knew they could and likely would get some solid athletes without having to spend any draft picks, and on paper, it seems like they went out and did a fine job, potentially stocking up on  what many already thought to be a very strong draft.

It's extremely early in the process, and no declarations should be made quite yet, but it's hard to ignore the talent of a few of the Broncos' undrafted rookies.  Here is a guy the Broncos brought into mini-camp who I believe has a real shot of making the roster, and one whose path to the NFL is an interesting ride, to say the least.

Meet Toney Baker, Running Back, North Carolina State

5'10" 235 4.53


Toney Baker was an interesting story long before his NFL career ever materialized.  In 2005, Baker was rated as one of the top running backs in his graduating class, and was rated a four-star prospect by and a five star prospect by  Baker is one of the most prolific running backs in high school football history, regardless of conference, state, city, or any other variable. 

His 10,231 rushing yards at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, North Carolina rank third all-time among high school football running backs.  His extremely productive high school career was highlighted by a junior season where he rushed for over 3,400 yards and 41 touchdowns.  He didn't exactly disappoint in his senior season either, when he rushed for over 3,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. 

Before he became a member of the N.C. State Wolfpack, Baker showed he was an extremely impressive combination of size, speed, and toughness, running the 40 yard dash in 4.45 seconds, throwing up 30 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press, with a vertical leap of 32 inches.  Even though that was five years and 20 pounds ago, those are still very impressive numbers for a power style running back.  His high school coach had this much to say about him:

"Any school that plays big college football better be after him," says Ragsdale head coach Tommy Norwood. "If he's not the best rising running back in North Carolina, I don't want to know who is and I don't want to play against him. I mean, all Toney did was run for over 2,000 yards last year."

Unfortunately, we're not on this site because we are N.C. State Wolfpack fans, and unfortunately, it's no longer 2005, and Baker's collegiate career has to be considered a major disappointment given the amount of hype that surrounded it. 

For the first two years of his career, Baker split time with Andre Brown, who is one of the better running backs in Wolfpack history.  His first two seasons appeared to be promising though not very flashy, when he ran for a total of 1,234 yards and 11 touchdowns in a running back by committee system.

His performance as a freshman and sophomore were encouraging enough to the point that Baker was placed on the 2007 Doak Walker Award Watch List, and the nation was ready for him to emerge as a collegiate superstar.  But oh, how quickly they fall.

Baker tore up his knee in the season opener in 2007, and missed the rest of the year as well as the entire 2008 campaign as a result.  The man who was expected to be a superstar instantly became an afterthought, but Baker was not finished with football just yet.

After an extremely arduous rehabilitation process, Baker returned to football in 2009 and had the best season of his collegiate career.  The 23 year old amassed 773 yards on 160 carries and finished the season with six rushing touchdowns.  He also proved to be a very valuable commodity in the passing game, catching 28 passes for 355 yards and three more scores. 

Baker's 2009 performance earned him the ACC's Brian Piccolo Award as the league's "most courageous" player, which was well deserved considering some thought he might never play again.

Now Baker's comeback has come full circle.  A man who was once a high school All American in the fast lane en route to stardom got a gigantic dose of humility with essentially two years out of football.  Baker also has a minute tie to Denver in a way, which can be discovered in this interview at the NC State Rivals site.  Apparently, the new Bronco grew up idolizing former Denver superstar Terrell Davis, who has a strikingly similar repertoire and scouting report.

Here's what Baker had to say in early January when he declared himself eligible for the 2010 NFL Draft, passing up on a sixth year of granted eligibility at NC State:

"I'm very excited just to train and get my body ready," Baker said. "I've really been working for this a long time. This is a dream of mine. Really just excited, anxious, just ready to get out there and play with the best."

Baker also gave a nice little scouting report prior to his arrival to Raleigh.  Here's what the Broncos are getting from their new running back, in his own words:

"I have great speed, vision and strength, I see the whole field good and I can juke and jive as well as run right over you. I have great instincts. I want to be a better pass blocker and be an all-around back and help my team in every way."

Well, there's that versatility Josh McDaniels and the Broncos' coaching staff absolutely love in their players.  It's quite rare for the Broncos to be "thin" at the running back position, but this offseason it's any man's game.  The Broncos drafted Knowshon Moreno in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, and return Correll Buckhalter.  The team also brought on J.J. Arrington and relatively unknown Lance Ball and Bruce Hall to compete.

Baker seems to have as good of a chance at a spot on this team as anybody. 

At the N.C. State pro day, Baker weighed in ten pounds heavier than his playing weight, a very solid 235 pounds.  Still, he was able to turn in a 4.53 second 40 yard dash, not bad for a guy who missed essentially two seasons with knee injuries.  Baker had this to say after his pro day performance:

 "Just to put down some good numbers, show that I'm a football player, that I can catch and run, that I'm explosive," Baker said. "I weighed in at 234 and I feel great at that weight. A team that's looking for a big back with balance and can run in and out, I'm that guy. "You can always improve in every aspect, especially as a running back. Our job requires a lot. We got to block, run and catch. That's what I'm going to work on."

Perhaps it's not healthy to become attached to undrafted rookies, but Baker seems to have the determination, heart, athleticism, and physical tools to make it as a player in this league.  Though his injury history should not be thrown on the back burner, he certainly seems to be in top tier NFL shape, and may have gone a little too far under the radar.

Fortunately for the Broncos, Baker is something of a Denver fan, and he chose them to jump start his NFL career.  Whether or not this kid makes it out of camp, he is undoubtedly the most intriguing prospect in the undrafted free agent class due to his more than legitimate chance to crack the final roster by the end of training camp.

Perhaps someday Baker will pay a certain respect to his childhood idol by executing the Mile High Salute on the other end of a few Denver Broncos touchdown runs.


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