The Dolphins defense has been on the field for 182 plays through three games; Jerome Baker has missed only six of those snaps. The third-year Dolphins linebacker is in the middle of everything once more, one year after playing a combined 1,208 snaps on defense and special teams for the 2019 Miami Dolphins.
Leaders. Communicators. Versatile players who love football; those are the hallmarks of Brian Flores' messaging and the requisite traits of the team he and Chris Grier are assembling in Miami.
Baker's 30 tackles are tied for sixth-most in the NFL through the first three weeks. He saved a touchdown in Week 1 with a hustle play that led to a forced fumble and takeaway for the Dolphins defense. Miami would march 80 yards on the ensuing possession and cut the Patriots lead to three points. He's a game-changer, a momentum swinger. He leads by example and proudly carries multiple responsibilities on the Dolphins defense.
"He's in good physical condition. He's able to take as many reps as we can give him and he's been productive for us," Dolphins Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer said. "He works hard, he has the mental capacity that he can handle multiple roles. He's been all over the field. He's shown the ability to make plays so it's a combination of all of that for him to be out there for as many plays as he is."
Flores' messaging is about consistency, and not just on the football field. To be consistent on Sundays, a player must display that same work ethic and attention to detail every day in everything they do.
"Conditioning, getting in the playbook, weights, practice, fundamentals, technique," Flores said when detailing the things players have to do to produce on Sundays. "You need stretches of games of consistency to feel good that they understand how to be a professional and that complacency doesn't set in."
Baker's career has been on an upward trajectory since his 2018 arrival. A third-round pick from Ohio State, Baker worked his way up from a rookie who started 11 games and totaled 76 tackles in 2018 to a guy who was 14th in the NFL with 124 tackles in 2019 and is in the top 10 in the league in tackle production in 2020.
Flores was named Dolphins head coach in Baker's second year. He was impressed enough with Baker's 2018 tape and play in the offseason to insert him into the middle of his defense right away.
This past March, former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder joined the Drive Time Podcast and discussed what he sees from Baker and how Flores utilized his skill set to structure the defense around the – at the time – 22-year-old linebacker.
"(Flores) put Jerome Baker in the middle of everything," Crowder said. "He tried to keep Jerome unblocked to let him run because Jerome is so fast. He'd slide him to the tight end, pull guys down in the box, whatever."
The result was tangible. Among off-ball linebackers, Baker was tied for sixth in quarterback pressures (courtesy of Pro Football Focus) with 16 last year. His ball production in the passing game produced more interceptions and pass breakups (four combined) than touchdowns allowed in coverage (two). His 46 run stops (tackles within two yards of the line of scrimmage) were second among NFL off-ball linebackers.
He helps the defense in all three phases – as a pass rusher, coverage specialist and in the running game.
"When an offensive lineman sees Baker on the line of scrimmage, they know he can really run," Dolphins Defensive Line Coach Marion Hobby said. "A lot of time he's stretching the offensive lineman out. Sometimes he's calling the play for us so he is like a coach on the field. His speed is evident in those situations as a pass rusher and a penetrator."
Calling the defense is a product of the way Baker works. The coaching staff, his teammates, personnel people – everyone lauds the way Baker goes about his professional approach and the example he sets for the younger guys.
"He's a very cerebral guy. Very high football IQ," Dolphins Linebackers Coach Anthony Campanile said. "He sees things very well. He's done a great job communicating through the summer and in the season."
"Me and Jerome have a great relationship," Dolphins linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. "We talk about the game plan each and every day."
The game plan for a player Baker like is extensive. His involvement has a ripple effect on all three levels of the defense. Defensive Backs Coach Gerald Alexander complimented Baker for his ability to reduce stress in the middle of the defense in coverage, whether they're in man or zone.
"Guys like Baker who have the athleticism to get the depth in zone coverage helps, but also the speed to break down on check downs and make open-field tackles," Alexander said. "When we match up man-to-man, that's a weapon for us being able to utilize his skillset."
On top of the preparation in the film room, weight room and in everything that comes with being an accomplished professional football player, Baker's production on Sundays continues to make him shine amongst his peers.
With 230 career tackles, Baker is sixth among players in his 2018 draft class. All five players ahead of him were drafted before he was in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Brian Flores demands smart, tough football from his players. He wants communicators that can execute a variety of roles. These are the traits that Jerome Baker possesses, both as a player and as a leader.
"He's got good speed, good athleticism and he's got good timing as well," Flores said of Baker. "He does a good job of studying cadence and timing things pretty well. He's a guy that's taken on a leadership role. I really appreciate the work he's put in and the leadership role he's taken."
Baker's commitment to excellence extends beyond the football field. He runs a foundation in his hometown of Cleveland called 'Expand the Land' and despite the restrictions from COVID-19, Baker still found a way to give back this offseason.
"The events didn't get canceled but they got changed quite a bit," Baker said. "I had the backpack giveaway at my high school. It was supposed to be a camp but that changed because of the pandemic but we decided to give backpacks away. It's definitely hard but you have to find ways to be safe and get through it."