Jerome Baker took over as a starter in his sophomore year and never looked back. As a sophomore, Jerome Baker had 83 tackles, 9.5 for loss and two interceptions. In his junior year, he put up 72 tackles with 3.5 sacks. Is he another Ohio State linebacker that the Steelers should have on their draft radar?
Jerome Baker can really move. He is undersized, but that plays well when he is in the WILL position and has to defend running backs, tight ends and slot wide receivers in space. Baker has loose hips and is able to change directions and move downfield with a variety of skill players. In the play below he is stride for stride with a tight end and is able to get his head turned to play the ball and ensure the incompletion.
His loose hips show in his ability to deal with double moves and quicker receivers. Mike Gesicki, an NFL prospect was not able to shake Jerome Baker, who flipped his hips while maintaining speed with his opposition.
Of course, the speed and fluidity have to show up in the running game as well. Baker is able to chase down most running backs to the outside. Misdirection and fakes do not hurt him because of his outstanding recovery speed.
The instincts of Jerome Baker, especially defending the run will have to be put to the test. Baker is much more comfortable away from the line of scrimmage and in space.
In the box and diagnosing the run is not where you find Jerome Baker feeling at his best. In the play below, you can see the uneasiness. He is trying to read the run. The initial fake at the handoff has Baker shifting left. However, as he sees the run move to his right, he is flying over to make the play. Unfortunately, he overshot his gap. Instead of reading while moving with the back, he was moving to a spot. By the time he got to his spot on the outside, the back cut upfield to move past him for a big gain.
Again, Baker is getting too far outside and is providing a hole for the back. What makes it worse is his lack of ability to recover and get them back on the ground. In the particular play, he was able to stretch out for the first down.
Again, Baker is over pursuing and leaving a back door wide open for the Michigan running back. Moving left with the direction of the run is not bad. However, when the play breaks, you can see the hole between 74, the guard, and 57, the center. This is where Baker needs to use his speed to shoot into the hole and blow the play up before the back even has a chance to cut back left. Instead, he is waiting for the back to come to him and is left out of position when he never does.
This can show sometimes in coverage as well. While Baker is strong matching footwork and speed in man, questions arise in zone. Watch the play below. He is taking the underneath flat near the sideline. There is only one skill player on his side of the field. Two skill players stay in to block on this play. That leaves the other two stacked on the far side of the field. Baker drops initially towards the outer sideline, where truly his only threat lies.
However, in his zone, he is reading the quarterback, who is shifting his eyes away. This makes sense, Baker is essentially roaming over to provide double coverage. However, as Baker reads the quarterback, he flows into the middle of the field more, despite there being no threat. This gives the quarterback his window to the outside and makes the curl an easy completion. Baker is doing his job, but his lack of instincts and understanding of the situation has him out of position and has Indiana completing a third down. If the Indiana quarterback is going to win the mind game with Jerome Baker, what are NFL quarterbacks going to do?
On top of all of that is his frame. He is lighter and while he is not comfortable in the box, he also is not physically strong enough for consistent box play. Baker is dragged for a first down by an Oklahoma running back below.
Kevin Pierre-Louis spent most of his career as a weakside linebacker who does not see the field much for the first two downs. However, in passing situations, he is a quick footed athlete who can flow sideline to sideline to defend running backs, tight ends and slot receivers. In an ever-growing passing league, his role has become more valuable.
Last season, Pierre-Louis changed teams and schemes and moved to more of an inside linebacker role. A lot of run deficiencies were highlighted in the bigger role and brought the question of how often he can stay on the field. These are the similar questions that are going to follow Jerome Baker around. As a third-down linebacker, his role is going to be valuable and filled. However, against the run and in the box on first and second down may be too much on his plate.
A fit for Pittsburgh Steelers?
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a desperate need for linebackers. They also have a connection to some Ohio State players, drafting Cam Heyward, Mike Adams, Ryan Shazier, and Doran Grant. Therefore, a lot of Steelers fans could see the team once again taking the linebacker from Ohio State in the 2018 NFL draft.
The question of how well he fits would start with what round he is taken in. In an early round, it may not be valued. As mentioned, if he ever becomes a three-down linebacker, it certainly will not be next season. The Steelers could sign a linebacker and bring Baker in for those specific passing downs. He could be their secret tight end stopper who plays 20 snaps or less every game.
The question then comes to his upside, and whether or not the team believes he can be a starter in the NFL. It may take time, but it is on the table due to his speed and athleticism. In the first two rounds, Baker cannot be in the discussion. If he falls as the draft gets later, he becomes intriguing due to his upside. Finding the right round, value and role will be the job of the Pittsburgh Steelers heading to the NFL draft.