Jerome Baker can talk as much as he wants about how he loves the Miami Dolphins organization, their fans, the community and the South Florida culture.
“I want to play here for the rest of my career. I love it here,” Baker said Friday, at the conclusion of the Dolphins’ on-field work during the Organized Team Activities portion of the offseason. “I love the fans. I love the organization. I love everybody here.
“I definitely see myself playing here for a long time.”
I’ve heard all that courtship chatter before, multiple times over, from everyone with an expiring contract such as Baker, who will earn $2.4 million in the final year of his rookie deal.
Baker’s job while his agent is trying to negotiate a new deal is to say all the right things. And he did during his first interview with the media this offseason.
But don’t mistake it, Baker’s focused on getting P-A-I-D before September’s start of the regular season arrives.
This inside linebacker plays one of the most physical positions in a brutal sport, and he’s aware the shelf life for his position isn’t long, especially for a player with his size and frame.
That’s why it’s critical that he maximizes this opportunity, securing a multi-year deal before — or while — playing out the final year of the contract he signed as a 2018 third-round pick.
That’s the natural progression for young players who develop well in a team’s program, and Baker has done just that. He’s been a starter since his rookie season, and blossomed into the team’s leading tackler the past two seasons.
“He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s competitive, he loves to play. He’s team-first,” coach Brian Flores said Friday. “He’s really gotten better in every area — pass coverage, run defense, really across the board. He’s a very good player.”
Baker has excelled in coverage, which is his main role as he spends most of the game shadowing tailbacks in the passing game.
He’s also a phenomenal blitzer, timing things up just right to be moving past the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball.
He’s actually under-utilized in that role despite contributing seven sacks last season, but that’s another story for another day.
Today we’re talking about whether or not Baker has a future with the Dolphins, which will likely be determined in the upcoming six or seven months.
Nobody likes to play on the final year of their contract in the NFL because there is so much risk associated with that.
One injury could cost Baker his season, and that would likely tear up his lottery ticket worth $8-11 million a year he’s in possession of as a healthy, young, productive NFL starter.
Baker has led the Dolphins in tackles for the past two seasons. He’s tallied 317 tackles, 11.5 sacks and two interceptions and forced four fumbles and recovered one in his first three seasons.
He’s watched what the Dolphins did to Kiko Alonso, trading him away two years after signing the team’s leading tackler to a big extension.
He’s seen how Miami unloaded linebacker Raekwon McMillan, his former Buckeyes and Dolphins teammate, to the Las Vegas Raiders last training camp.
So Baker knows how ruthless this business is to players.
The question he must ask himself is whether or not the Dolphins will take care of him like they did Xavien Howard and Jason Sanders, signing those two standouts to extensions before their fourth season began.
Or will the Dolphins force him to play this season for a fraction of his value, like they did Olivier Vernon, Ja’Wuan James and Jarvis Landry, and then let them maximize their value with the free agent market.
They critical question that will impact that answer is how much is Baker worth?
The last major deal the Dolphins gave to a linebacker was Alonso’s three-year, $29 million contract extension, which guaranteed him $18.5 million at signing. But that was four years ago, so inflation should bloat those projections a little.
Before that, Miami gave Karlos Dansby a five-year, $43 million deal that guaranteed him $22 million back in 2010. That was 11 years ago, and the price has clearly gone up.
Dannell Ellerbe landed a five-year, $35 million deal from Miami that guaranteed him $14 million back in 2013.
Baker’s new teammate, Benardrick McKinney, signed a five-year deal worth $50 million with the Texans, which guaranteed him $21 million. The Dolphins picked up McKinney’s contract, which will pay him $7 million in 2021, in this offseason’s trade that featured Shaq Lawson and his $10 million a year salary being swapped in return.
If Miami’s willing to pay McKinney $7 million this season, and was willing to pay Lawson $10 million a year on his three-year, $30 million deal, why shouldn’t Baker be in the $8-10 million-a-year neighborhood?
If Baker can stay healthy and remain productive, he’ll likely get that level of salary from the Dolphins or another team.
And that’s the goal. The bar. The finish line.
The challenge for Baker is getting there.
“The contract stuff is the contract stuff. I really don’t care for it right now,” Baker said. “I honestly just missed being out there with all the guys, especially all the personalities we have, the new guys. And ultimately just learning and getting better.
“I love to play football. That’s honestly why I’m out here,” said Baker, who skipped the early portion of OTA practice sessions. “That’s what I love to do and I just want our team to get better.”