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Seahawks Analysis: How Tyrel Dodson, Jerome Baker Fit in Mike Macdonald's Defense

Replacing both of their starters from a year ago, the Seattle Seahawks will start over at linebacker under a new regime with two intriguing veterans who may be the right schematic fit, albeit with less star power than Mike Macdonald had in Baltimore.

Slowly beginning to rebuild the Seattle Seahawks on defense this offseason, new coach Mike Macdonald won't have the benefit of bringing his two standout linebackers from Baltimore in Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen along for the ride.

But while Macdonald won't have either All-Pro defender with him in the Pacific Northwest, general manager John Schneider did land an intriguing pair of linebackers in free agency, signing ex-Dolphins starter Jerome Baker and ex-Bills reserve Tyrel Dodson to one-year contracts. Replacing departed veterans Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks, both players should be upgrades in the athleticism department while offering a much-needed infusion of youth at the position.

From a schematic standpoint, neither Baker nor Dodson present the same exact skill set as Smith and Queen did in Macdonald's defense and it wouldn't be fair to expect either of them to replicate their production starring in the middle for the Ravens. But at the same time, the two linebackers offer similar enough skill sets to project where they will fit into the defensive puzzle for the Seahawks.

After spending four seasons primarily as a special teams contributor, Dodson earned his first extended starting opportunity in Buffalo last season when standout cover linebacker Matt Milano suffered a season-ending injury. Starting the final 10 games, he impressed with 74 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and eight tackles for loss, emerging as one of the most improved players in the AFC.

Statistically, Dodson only gave up one touchdown on 24 targets and limited opponents to under eight yards per reception while generating a pair of pass breakups, earning Pro Football Focus' third-best coverage grade among qualified linebackers last season.

While Dodson stepped into Milano's role and performed admirably, however, PFF grades don't paint the entire picture, particularly in coverage. Once he jumped into the lineup, the Bills made significant personnel and sub-package adjustments, including subbing in Taylor Rapp as a third safety on most third downs and obvious passing situations in place of the aggressive young linebacker, handing off Milano's match coverage duties to an extra defensive back.

Buffalo did a fine job utilizing new Seahawks linebacker Tyrel Dodson's strengths when he replaced Matt Milano, cutting him loose as a blitzer and replacing him with a safety on obvious passing downs.

Buffalo did a fine job utilizing new Seahawks linebacker Tyrel Dodson's strengths when he replaced Matt Milano, cutting him loose as a blitzer and replacing him with a safety on obvious passing downs.

If this sounds familiar, well, the Ravens at one point had to do the same thing with Queen, who struggled quite a bit in his first two-plus NFL seasons. As a rookie, he allowed four touchdowns and an 85 percent completion rate in coverage and wasn't much better in 2021, surrendering 10.5 yards per reception and a 78 percent completion rate. Quarterbacks posted ugly 117.5 and 107.1 ratings throwing his direction in those two seasons, drawing the bust label from some fans.

But Queen began to make substantial improvements when Macdonald returned as the defensive coordinator in 2022, especially after a midseason trade to acquire Smith from the Bears as his new running mate in the middle. With Smith thriving as a do-it-all MIKE linebacker, the former LSU star found his groove at the WILL position where the Ravens could unleash him more as a blitzer and maximize on his strengths as a downhill player.

As a result, Queen started to play like the disruptive weapon Baltimore thought he would when the team invested a first-round pick in him in 2020. He tallied a career-high five sacks and 24 pressures as a blitzer in 2021 and with Smith holding down the fort in the middle, his performance in coverage also improved dramatically, as he intercepted two passes and recorded three pass breakups while giving up just one touchdown.

Becoming more comfortable as a coverage linebacker as he grew in Macdonald's scheme, Queen allowed a career-low 8.4 yards per reception last season while adding an interception and three pass breakups. After totaling 133 combined tackles and adding 3.5 sacks as a rusher, he garnered Second-Team All-Pro honors, turning a breakout season into a massive contract with the Steelers earlier this month.

Looking at Dodson's strengths and limitations, or at least perceived limitations due to limited NFL snaps to this point, there's plenty of reasons to believe he could make a similar jump to Queen playing in Macdonald's defense. For one, the former Texas A&M standout proved to be incredibly efficient as a blitzer last year, recording 11 pressures and 2.5 sacks on only 41 pass rush attempts, posting a 26 percent pressure rate.

Dodson also proved to be a thumper in the run game, finishing seventh among linebackers in run stop percentage (10.9 percent) and 12th in average depth of tackle, often finding his way into the backfield for negative plays. Like Queen, he missed his fair share of tackles and his aggressiveness can bite him in pursuit at times, but he made up for those mistakes by coming through with impact plays on a regular basis, making him an intriguing fit playing the WILL role in Seattle.

As for Baker, unlike his new teammate, the former Ohio State star brings ample experience with him to the Seahawks defense. The savvy veteran found his way into the Dolphins lineup early in his rookie season and has started 82 games over the past six years, being one of the longest tenured starters at the position in the NFL before being cut as a cap casualty on March 5.

Weighing just 225 pounds, Baker is far from a carbon copy of Smith, who weighs close to 240 pounds and has a more prototypical inside linebacker build. Due to his lean frame, he has battled issues throughout his career working off of blocks, which can lead to quite a few tackles several yards downfield. Last season, he finished 68th out of 90 qualified linebackers averaging 4.3 yards in depth per tackle versus the run and ranked 74th in run stop percentage.

Built like a safety more than a linebacker, Jerome Baker has found success getting his hands on the football in coverage, including returning a pick-six vs. the Eagles last season.

Built like a safety more than a linebacker, Jerome Baker has found success getting his hands on the football in coverage, including returning a pick-six vs. the Eagles last season.

But while Baker isn't in the same class as Smith defending the run, he does compare favorably as a blitzer and cover linebacker at the MIKE position. In four of his six seasons, Miami sent him as an extra rusher at least 100 times and he made the most of those opportunities, racking up 22.5 sacks and 46 quarterback hits, while Smith had 20 sacks and 26 quarterback hits in the same span.

In coverage, Baker has a natural feel for zone drops and has enough juice athletically to match up against running backs, tight ends, and receivers over the middle. While he has surrendered 11 touchdowns in his career, he also has picked off five passes, including a pick-six against Jalen Hurts and the Eagles last season, to go with 10 pass breakups. Additionally, he has been in the top-11 among linebackers in fewest yards allowed per catch each of the past three seasons.

Just 27 years old, Baker should have a lot of good football left in him and could be the beneficiary moving away from a Vic Fangio-style defense where he's asked to take on a bigger plate coverage. Even if he isn't the same caliber player of Smith, his experienced presence may have the same type of effect on Dodson with the Seahawks that Queen enjoyed after the Ravens traded for the star linebacker.

Looking long term, Seattle gave itself flexibility by signing both Baker and Dodson to one-year deals to see how they mesh with Macdonald's scheme before handing out a multi-year commitment to either of them. For those hoping to see them become the second coming of Smith and Queen, expectations should be tempered, particularly with the rest of the players around them learning a new defense as well.

But assuming the Seahawks plan to plug Baker into Smith's role and Dodson into Queen's role at the second level, their past production and play styles should match up well with what Macdonald asks of his linebackers. With each player being in their mid-20s and in the prime of their respective careers with room to develop, the organization will be hoping at least one, if not both, become long-term answers at an important position.