Barry Jackson

Here’s why the Dolphins elevated this rookie into their starting group on Sunday

Linebacker Jerome Baker (55), cornerback Bobby McCain (28), and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (29) make a tackle on Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans (13) during Thursday’s preseason game. All took on expanded roles in Sunday’s practice, with Baker beginning practice at starting strongside linebacker.
Linebacker Jerome Baker (55), cornerback Bobby McCain (28), and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (29) make a tackle on Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans (13) during Thursday’s preseason game. All took on expanded roles in Sunday’s practice, with Baker beginning practice at starting strongside linebacker. Getty Images

The Dolphins injected rookie third-round pick Jerome Baker into their starting lineup on Sunday, sacrificing girth but adding speed and what they hope will be additional playmaking to their first-team linebacker group.

Baker replaced Stephone Anthony, who wasn’t a factor in limited snaps against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

“It was very exciting,” Baker said after opening with the starters in team drills for the first time in 12 training camp practices.

Though Baker played both strongside and weakside linebacker in Sunday’s session, he opened playing strongside alongside weakside linebacker Kiko Alonso and middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan.

If Baker stays with the starters, that means the Dolphins will have gone from a 6-3, 245-pound strongside linebacker in Anthony to a 6-2, 215-pounder in Baker.

But in an era where teams are increasingly prioritizing speed and coverage ability in linebackers, coaches want to see how this trio works together.

“He’s a stud, really athletic, fast, quick,” Alonso said of Baker. “He can do everything asked for out of a linebacker.”

Baker was targeted seven times in coverage against Tampa Bay but allowed only 36 passing yards on those targets. He also had three defensive stops and a quarterback pressure and stopped a screen pass for a three yard loss.

“He made plays,” coach Adam Gase said. “That‘s all we’re looking for guys to do. Get lined up, get in the right spot. Makes plays. I thought Jerome played pretty well.”

Baker’s assessment of his first NFL game?

“I did my job,” he said. “That’s nothing to brag about. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Fine tune little things, hand placement, getting lined up right. That’s what I’m focusing on heading into game two. I did good on paper but there are a lot of things on film I definitely need to clean up.”

Asked what he does well, Baker said: “I’m smart and very aware. My speed is just one thing I’m blessed with, but knowing where to go and getting myself out of trouble when I’m in trouble is pretty much what I’m good at. I don’t want to allow myself in bad positions. That’s one thing I do very well.”

Even though he’s undersized as a strongside linebacker, Baker cautioned that weakside and strongside linebacker are “pretty much the same thing” in Miami’s defense.

Anthony downplayed moving to the second team on Sunday - he said flipping of players between teams is “supposed to happen” - and praised Baker: “He’s fast, he’s twitchy, he makes plays.”

THIS AND THAT

Raekwon McMillan has work to do after his first NFL preseason snaps at linebacker, Gase said. His game went “like it was first 14 plays of his NFL career; we expected it,” Gase said.

Ryan Tannehill admonished Kalen Ballage, sending him back to the bench, after Ballage went out for a pass pattern on a play where he was supposed to be stay in and block Charles Harris. Tannehill would have been sacked in a real game in that situation. “He was in the right, making an example there.”

Rookie tight end Mike Gesicki, who’s continuing to work with the starters, said no one outside the Dolphins’ building believes he can block.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, Mike blocked somebody,’” Gesicki said. “’ I know that that’s what everybody thinks, but that’s not what it is.... That’s my job and I will do it to the best of my ability.”

Gase said: “I am always killing on him anyway the thing I appreciate about Mike is he wants to get better at it. He doesn’t want to be a receiver. He will get crushed a couple times but you don’t see him shy away from it the next time. I’ve seen tight ends who don’t part to be a part of it because they don’t want to be embarrassed. He doesn’t want to get taken out and everyone thinks he’s on the field, it’s pass.”

Five players sat out practice: Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (shoulder), receiver Kenny Stills (ankle), center Jake Brendel (calf), defensive lineman William Hayes (hamstring) and linebacker Mike Hull (knee).

Hull, who has a sprained MCL, will be out “a little bit,” Gase said, adding he was unsure of the timetable.

The Dolphins weren’t happy with their defensive work Thursday. “We were a little lackadaisical,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said, adding that defensive line coach Kris Kocurek “was disappointed. Guy saw the tape and were disappointed.”

Practice notables: Jason Sanders hit all seven field goals, including two from 61 yards… Trae Elston picked off Brock Osweiler, which was Osweiler’s seventh interception in training camp compared with only two for David Fales… Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor again blew up a running play, continuing an excellent training camp…

DeVante Parker dropped a pass and had no success catching anything against Xavien Howard. But Gase said he’s not concerned about chemistry between Ryan Tannehill and Parker… Miami opened team drills with Gesicki, MarQueis Gray and Durham Symthe in a three-tight end set.

Adam Beasley will have a story on the changes the Dolphins made in their defensive backfield today, with Bobby McCain opening at boundary cornerback opposite Xavien Howard and Miami making ample use of a lineup with safeties Reshad Jones, T.J. McDonald and Minkah Fitzpatrick playing together.... As we wrote Saturday, cornerback Braushad Breeland is visiting the Dolphins on Sunday and there is legitimate Miami interest.

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