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NFL Draft

Jerome Baker Is Underrated, But Not For Much Longer

  • The Draft Network
  • July 18, 2020
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It can be tough for young players to withstand coaching staff changes. Such is the nature of an ever-shifting league. Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker, for example, was a sub-230 pound linebacker selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft to play for a Matt Burke-coached defense under then-head coach Adam Gase. Baker saw the field as a rookie, though only as a base-down linebacker, flowing as a 4-3 WILL playing behind a one-gapping, Wide 9 defensive front. It’s fair to say that Baker looked good for a third-round pick, but nothing on his 2018 film indicated that he was a special player.

Then, the dreaded change. Yes, general manager Chris Grier, who had drafted Baker, remained in the building—that was good news. But Gase was fired and was replaced by a defensive-minded head coach—one with a polar opposite philosophy to Burke. Brian Flores, the Patriots’ ex-linebackers coach and Bill Belichick acolyte, was brought in to rebuild the Dolphins’ identity, starting with the defense. 

The Belichick defense has produced some great linebackers during its endurance of the 2000s, but it also asks a lot of its off-ball defenders. It is a read-based defense that looks to seal gaps on the interior with big, two-gapping nose tackles and smart, aggressive, physical linebackers. It needs players who can win through traffic at times and in space in others, and most importantly, players who don’t make mistakes or hesitate in the fast flow of an NFL game. For a second-year NFL player learning a new system, on paper, this looks bad.

In practice and in game play, it wasn’t bad—it was pretty doggone solid. Despite his lighter weight, the coaching staff was enticed by his athletic ability; despite his youth, Baker was demanding a leadership role in the locker room, and was awarded the green dot to call plays in Flores’ master class defense. As Baker’s linebacker coach Rob Leonard said during the preseason: “He’s definitely emerging as a leader. He has all the physical tools—cover, blitz, he can run, he’s physical. He’s starting to really believe all the things that we saw when we first got here.”

The Dolphins’ new coaching staff had faith in Baker, even if he wasn’t drafted with their system in mind—he repaid that faith. As Leonard noted, they were comfortable doing just about anything with Baker, and he was able to deliver for them. Baker rushed the passer on 121 snaps last year, eighth most among off-ball linebackers in the NFL (second on his team to Sam Eguavon), which represented more than 20% of his snaps on passing downs. As a blitzer, Baker was used heavily as a looper behind defensive line games, which allowed him to use his quickness and bend to sneak by heavy-footed and off-balance offensive linemen to put stress on the quarterback. Many of Baker’s rushes were cleaned up by other defenders who were pushing interior gaps, as Baker served primarily as a contain/levels player meant to force the quarterback off of his spot and into the waiting arms of another defender.

Baker’s build leads to issues whenever he plays among the trees, however, so the Dolphins—who got away with rushing him a ton in 2019—will likely look to rush him a bit less in 2020. Now that traditional Belichickian outside linebackers such as Kamu Grugier-Hill and Kyle Van Noy are on the roster, Baker will be more frequently asked to hang back in short zones, spy mobile quarterbacks, and close on underneath breaking routes. Baker can put out some quality zone coverage reps, though his understanding of match coverages and relating to routes still leaves a bit to be desired. 

Remember, this was Baker’s first year in a complex system—that he immediately stepped up into high expectations on a depleted roster alone is worthy of praise. His play wasn’t perfect, but it was starting-caliber in the NFL.

As Baker himself said approaching the 2019 season, “I really don’t have a set job. It’s kind of fit in, do this and whatever they ask me I do.” It is educational, then, to look at what the Dolphins did not ask Baker to do—namely, stack and shed at the line of scrimmage. Baker saw a heavy usage up at the line of scrimmage in the first four weeks of the season, before the bye—in three of the four weeks, he took at least 13 snaps on the line. Back from the bye, Baker wouldn’t take 13 snaps at the line of scrimmage until Week 17. The Dolphins transitioned Vince Biegel, another quality late-round linebacker pick, and later Andrew Van Ginkel, into the down outside linebacker role to keep Baker up on the second level.

It simply boils down to density. Baker does not hang well in traffic and cannot maintain leverage when put into head-up situations with offensive linemen. Baker knows this, and does what he can to slip blocks and disrupt by creating traffic jams, but he is primarily a run-and-chase linebacker against the run who the Dolphins will continue to protect from the strong side of the formation. Fortunately for Baker and the Dolphins, with the new acquisitions at linebacker and continued growth of Baker’s Ohio State teammate and Dolphins running mate Raekwon McMillan, the team is well suited to continue placing Baker only where he will be successful.

All in all, Baker is not a complete player—but boy, did the Dolphins need someone like him to shoulder a huge burden in their first season under Flores. With Minkah Fitzpatrick gone, Baker became the leader of the defense in Year 2, and performed admirably under circumstances that would have broken a lot of young players. Baker is clearly mentally and emotionally well tuned-in to Flores and the Patriot defense, and that will keep him on the field and calling the shots for a system that has been historically kind to linebackers. That opportunity to play will lead to experience, growth, and continued, steady improvement for an underrated young defender.

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