FLOWERY BRANCH — After the worst season of his four-year career with the Atlanta Falcons, Sam Baker wants to prove he's still a legitimate starting left tackle.
Baker, drafted 21st overall in 2008, knows he might not get another chance in Atlanta.
He has had back surgery three times since his rookie year and twice since last October. His five-year contract expires in February.
"It's just as hard mentally as it is physically," Baker said Sunday. "The organization has really helped me out with that. The rehab program, the strength program and everything else are phenomenal here."
Last year marked the second time that Baker underwent back surgery during the season. He missed four games and never regained his job after returning in Week 12.
When the season ended, Baker required another discectomy, a procedure to remove herniated disc material that presses on a nerve root or the spinal cord.
Doesn't sound like fun for any player, but for a left tackle who's constantly getting bent backward by defensive linemen, it might be even worse.
"I've said many times that I think Sam Baker is one of the most resilient guys that we have on our team," Smith said. "He's played through a lot of adversity, and when healthy he's played well for us. It says what kind of resolve he has and how tough he is."
Baker believes he's as healthy as he was in 2010, when the Falcons went 13-3 and he started every game.
Atlanta needs him to be durable and effective following a season in which the offensive line allowed 84 hits on quarterback Matt Ryan, seventh-most in the league. The line had difficulty, too, in short-yardage situations as running back Michael Turner averaged just 1.1 yards on 40 runs inside the opponents' 10-yard line.
Baker has yet to receive any significant competition for his job. Will Svitek, who replaced him as the starter last year, is working as the No. 2 left tackle.
Left guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure and right tackle Tyson Clabo are likewise secure with their jobs, leaving right guard as the only spot that change personnel.
Garrett Reynolds, who beat out Mike Johnson for the job in camp last year, is working at No. 1 right guard again, but he struggled enough last season that Joe Hawley replaced him after Ryan was hit repeatedly in a Week 7 victory at Detroit.
Rookie Peter Konz, a second-round pick from Wisconsin, is working behind Reynolds and is taking snaps behind McClure at center.
"There are three more (preseason games) for us to evaluate all of the guys that are competing," Smith said. "I believe there are 12 guys that legitimately have an opportunity for the nine spots on our offensive line. We've got to look at different combinations, game-day combinations, 46-man roster discussions as well as the 53-man roster."
Reynolds credits new line coach Pat Hill, who returned to the NFL after spending the last 15 years as head coach at Fresno State, with re-energizing the players with an old-school approach. Hill replaced Paul Boudreau, who was fired, in late January.
"He's full of energy, a very positive guy," Reynolds said. "We're just getting back to the fundamentals and basics. Working on the same stuff we've been working on for years but really getting down to the core principles and executing them."
Baker isn't so much concerned with who starts at right guard, not after he had to fill occasionally for Hawley in the last six weeks of the season.
"It was pretty tough, no question, but those kinds of experiences can build resiliency if you use them the right way," Baker said. "That's one of the things coach Smith always preaches. Going through that has helped me grow."
Notes: CB Asante Samuel returned to practice after missing Saturday's workout because of a family matter. ... DT Vance Walker, after recovering from a foot injury, practiced for the first time in 10 days. ... WR Kerry Meier missed his second straight practice with an undisclosed leg injury.