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What will Jerome Baker’s role be in Brian Flores’ new hybrid defense?

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Jerome Baker outperformed expectations as Miami’s WILL linebacker under Matt Burke, serving an important role. How will that role change in Brian Flores’ defense?

Miami Dolphins v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Questions among the linebacker group were ubiquitous leading into the 2018 Miami Dolphins training camp, as Raekwon McMillan had missed his rookie season to an ACL injury, and Kiko Alonso had a rough year transitioning to outside linebacker in 2017, especially in pass coverage.

The Dolphins selected Jerome Baker in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft: 6’1”, 229. A nickel linebacker at best, right? At least he’d theoretically help against tight ends and running backs, everybody is running 11 personnel, it’s a passing league, yada yada yada, or so went the collective group-think.

By season’s end, Jerome Baker garnered 679 snaps, and one can argue emerged as the most talented linebacker on the Dolphins roster, doing some of the very things that were predicted. The installation of Brian Flores’ defense leans towards a true hybrid defense, not just empty effervescence that’s typically said during the off-season — I know you’ve heard the tales about how versatile and attacking defensive coordinators schemes will be.

2018 New England Patriots defense by personnel grouping

The Patriots had six different starting personnel groupings, listed in order of frequency:

  • 3 DL-3 LB-5 SEC (7 occurrences)
  • 4 DL-3 LB-4 SEC (3)
  • 4 DL-2 LB-5 SEC (3)
  • 5 DL-2 LB-4 SEC (1)
  • 3 DL-2 LB-6 SEC (1)
  • 3 DL-4 LB-4 SEC (1)

Although not a conglomerate of every snap, you can see that the Patriots didn’t start four linebackers except one game (in their Week 3 contest). Jerome Baker had 679 snaps, ranking 3rd on the Dolphins LB unit — the Patriots’ 3rd linebacker received 225 fewer snaps. Kiko Alonso, the Dolphins leading LB snap-getter, may be on the way out. According to spotrac.com, the Dolphins can move on with a $4.7M net cap differential (8.2M in salary comes off the books, but $3.5 in dead money would be added).

I predict that Jerome Baker becomes the leading snap-getter in 2019, and he might be asked to add 10 pounds as he might have to play in more “inside” situations and deal with an increase in block-shedding situations. Jerod Mayo, who played at 6’1”, 230 pounds at the University of Tennessee, spent his first two seasons at outside linebacker before moving to inside linebacker his junior year. He plumped up to 237 by the NFL Combine, and hovered in the 240-250 pound range during his playing career as the inside linebacker for the New England Patriots.

Short yardage situation close to the red zone, this is effectively a 4-4 look vs. 22 personnel (2 RB’s, 2 TE’s). Baker is a “3 stack backer” in this play, or in other words, he’s stacked with the 3-technique of the DL (the guy lined up between the right guard and right tackle). He wouldn’t normally have a 4th DL in front of him in a base scenario, but this is about where an ILB would be playing depth-wise in a 3-4 look.

The sideline-to-sideline burst is apparent, the concern will be in those situations where he’s fighting off offensive linemen and expected to make plays post-grapple. I anticipate more 3 DL looks under Brian Flores, and as a result, Jerome Baker will prove his mettle by navigating through traffic and being able to disengage from blockers.

The Oakland Raiders run strong side here (and the Raiders left tackle possibly gets away with a holding call on Robert Quinn) with a fullback and Jared Cook in the slot. Rodney Hudson is designed to get up to the 2nd level and cut the WILL off. Baker keeps light feet, side steps Hudson (one of the better centers in the NFL) and brings down Marshawn Lynch. I feel comfortable with Baker combing through traffic east-and-west.

Baker played this poorly in my opinion, he had inside help and gave up outside leverage. Collapsing inside earlier could have allowed him to disengage and get back outside, or simply continuing his angle outside would’ve forced the ball carrier inside to Cameron Wake (or TJ McDonald if he somehow took a slippery wide angle to avoid Wake). Jared Cook doesn’t get much of a block on him either, so it’s disappointing Baker didn’t have more of an impact on this play.

North-south collisions were a mixed bag for Jerome Baker in 2018 as is, but it’s plays like these that make me nervous where he needs to take on a block (this time in a jet sweep situation), create separation, and track down the ball carrier.

I think Jerome Baker can add weight without sacrificing his athleticism a la Jerod Mayo. Baker will still have a premium in passing situations regardless. With the possibility of adding another 300 snaps to his plate and the defensive scheme installation on the horizon, Jerome Baker will be asked to be our most versatile linebacker, our most trusted linebacker. It’ll depend on growing from a supremely important niche role to a “jack of all trades”, including playing inside.

Do you think this characterization is accurate, and do you think Baker is up to the task? Let me know down in the Comments Section!