As the saying goes, the Buckeyes don't rebuild, they reload and in Baker, Urban Meyer found an uber-athletic linebacker with the slithery speed that earned plenty of comparisons to former Ohio State stars Ryan Shazier and Darron Lee.
Baker signed with Ohio State as one of the more hyped prep prospects in the country and his remarkable athleticism will certainly make him highly regarded by NFL scouts, as well. Even blue chip recruits typically have to wait in line at Ohio State, however, and Baker saw limited playing time as a true freshman, recording just four tackles while appearing in the team's final seven games.
Baker did not have the immediate impact some predicted but he exploded onto the scene a year later, recording career-highs in tackles (83), tackles for loss (9.5), sacks (3.5) and interceptions (two) while starting all but the first game of the 2016 season. He earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors from league coaches and media for his breakout campaign and showed an intriguing ability to amp up his performance in big games - recording seven tackles (including 1.5 sacks) and an interception that he returned 68 yards for a touchdown against Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in a key inter-conference matchup early in the season and capped the regular season with a then-career high 15 tackles and a key interception late to help the Buckeyes beat arch-rival Michigan in a double-overtime thriller.
After his splashy sophomore debut, Baker was projected as a future first round pick entering the 2017 season. Quite frankly, he failed to live up to that hype for much of his junior campaign with below-average performances in several key games, most notably Ohio State's stunning 31 point loss on the road at Iowa.
Just as he did a year before, however, Baker played arguably his best game of the season in the biggest game of the year, setting a new personal best with 16 tackles in the win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, giving the Buckeyes their first conference title since 2014. Baker was the only player on either team to record double-digit tackles, which included two for loss and one sack, while also showing his speed in coverage, helping to limit the Badgers' star tight end, Troy Fumagalli, to a relatively toothless five catches for 45 yards.
Just three years removed from high school, it is clear that Baker is not yet a finished product and the team that invests an early round selection in him is gambling that he possesses the work ethic to take advantage of his undeniable athleticism. Although he will benefit from getting stronger and speeding up his mental processor, Baker has the athleticism and aggressive nature that are solid building blocks for a starting NFL linebacker, warranting top 50 consideration.
Jerome Baker was a Top 10 linebacker prospect nationally whose last high school game was a state championship game win over Kettering Alter, 21-14, in Ohio Stadium ... Baker scored twice, including the winning score early in the fourth quarter, to cap a 14-1 season and give Benedictine its seventh state title and coach Joe Schaefer state crowns as a Bengal player (2003) and coach ... Baker also had 11 stops on defense to earn game MVP honors ... a U.S. Army All-American, Baker was used sparingly on offense as a senior but still finished with 3,065 career rushing yards ... Baker was a consensus 4-star prospect who was ranked as the No. 41 player nationally by Rivals and the No. 67 player on the ESPN 300 ... earned impressive outside linebacker ratings by Rivals (No. 4) and Scout (No. 10) ...
Possesses rare athleticism for the position, showing impressive agility and straight-line speed, even amongst Ohio State's JV NFL team. Shows balance when dropping back into coverage, with a smooth backpedal and loose hips to turn, plant and accelerate smoothly. Arrives in a blink once he locates the ball, zipping past would-be blockers and flashing explosive collision power.
An aggressive open-field tackler, showing the grit to take on bigger ball-carriers and the length to lasso or drag them to the ground. Plays linebacker almost like a running back, locating holes and filling them aggressively, showing a willingness to "shoot his gun" when he sees a crease, often leading to big tackle for loss opportunities for himself and teammates. Knows how to "get skinny" to slip by blockers at the point of attack, turning his shoulders to slide through. Has the frame to get bigger, especially in his limbs. -- Rob Rang 12/22/2017
While there is no questioning his athleticism and potential, the mental part of the game hasn't shown the same development, playing too reactionary without the anticipation and processor that it takes to play the position at a high level. Baker puts himself in position to make plays, making contact with the ball carrier, but too often he fails to finish and misses the tackle.
He possesses a relatively slim build for a linebacker and while alert and aggressive to slip blocks and attack, Baker struggles to disengage, lacking upper body strength and hand technique at this time. Simply put, he normally has to avoid blocks to defeat blocks, rarely making tackles while simultaneously fighting off a blocker. Fails to consistently provide an initial pop to backs and tight ends, allowing receivers free release and immediate separation in man coverage. Though he is fast enough to recover, Baker too often turns back to steal looks at the quarterback, inexplicably losing track of his coverage responsibilities. -- Rob Rang 12/22/2017
COMPARES TO: Telvin Smith, Jaguars. Like the 6-3, 215 pound Smith, Baker does not possess the compact, powerful and intimidating frame most associate with an NFL linebacker. They both possess elite range, however, which - if protected by a stout defensive line - can make them effective "erasers" against today's increasingly horizontal offenses.
IN OUR VIEW: Quick passes to backs and tight ends are forcing defensive coordinators to find athletic linebackers who can cover with many willing to sacrifice size for speed. Because of this fact, Baker has a chance to earn an early selection. That said, one shouldn't have to search for linebackers on tape and all too often that has been the case with Baker. No one denies that he possesses rare athleticism for the position - including agility and straight-line speed - but those traits must be complemented by greater awareness and take-on strength if Baker is to live up to the success of the Ohio State linebackers who preceded him.