The talk of Chiefs Nation during training camp seems to begin and end with one player’s spectacular display: Jon Baldwin.
And the reason for Baldwin’s showing is because of Dwayne Bowe not showing.
Bowe is one of the last remaining holdouts in the NFL, and while many are expecting him back before the season, there doesn’t seem a lot of hope he arrives before preseason, and less hope he sees training camp whatsoever. While Bowe’s absence might have been crippling in any other year he has been with the team, the Chiefs have been moving forward with what could be his heir apparent. It seems that daily reports coming out of camp record an incredible catch that Baldwin made. And although I haven’t been to camp in St. Joseph to see for myself (geography), the media has done enough with their words to get me excited.
Baldwin’s first season as a Chief was filled with disappointment, and it started even before he broke his hand in a fight. It was this time last year after the lockout finally ended and teams were able to assemble their training camps when fans and media alike got to take a look at their team’s new first round pick. What fans, including myself saw, was a very big wide receiver who wasn’t standing out. I was at the camp last season, and I saw what the Kansas City sports talk stations were reporting: Baldwin was losing physical battles to smaller defensive backs. If Baldwin was jammed at the line, it would alter his route to that of an unrecognizable pattern no quarterback would trust throwing to. He was being man-handled at the line of scrimmage, and although he had the hands to make the catch, he didn’t seem to have the toughness or desire to get open when a defender hit him early.
The lackluster training camp was followed up with an injury that would limit Baldwin to just 11 games and 21 catches in his rookie campaign. Being one of just three wide receivers selected in the first round of 2011, Baldwin’s 254 yards and 1 TD were dwarfed in the shadows of his peers. A.J. Green would go on to have 65 catches for 1,057 yards and 7 TDs and Julio Jones would finish the season with 54 catches, 959 yards and 8 TDs. And although Baldwin was probably never going to be put in the position to gather those kinds of stats last season behind Bowe and Steve Breaston, injury or no injury, he still has to think about what could have been and what can be done.
As impressive as Green’s and Jones’ seasons were in 2011, they are more of the exception than the norm. Baldwin’s struggles are much more common of a storyline amongst rookie wide receivers, and they are also correctable. It’s a rule of thumb that receivers are given three years to fully develop into an NFL player, but Baldwin needs to work hard not to get sucked into the undertow of failed potential that litters the history of first round wide receivers.
Between 2000 and 2010, 45 wide receivers were drafted in the first round. Of those 45, only three have gone for 900+ yards in their rookie season (Andre Johnson, Michael Clayton, and our very own Dwayne Bowe) like Green and Jones did in 2011. In fact, based on all these players, one can realistically expect a rookie receiver to go for about 36.2 catches and 508.5 yards. Baldwin, in his injury-shortened season, was below this average.
And while Green and Jones look like they may go on to be the best in the game at their position, just because a wide receiver doesn’t start off their career like them doesn’t mean they should expect failure. Many others had very Baldwin-esque beginnings; and while some of them were complete busts, either due to effort or injury, and washed out of the league in a short amount of time – R. Jay Soward, Charles Rogers, Troy Williamson, Craig Davis, etc. – there are plenty that improved with time and became some of the best in the league.
Plaxico Burress had an uneventful rookie season, catching 22 balls for 273 yards and no scores. He then went on to have 66 catches, 1,008 yards and six TDs in his second year. Reggie Wayne, sitting behind Marvin Harrison, only caught 27 passes for 345 yards and no scores his rookie season. His sophomore year, he caught 49 for 716 yards and 4 TDs. Even Roddy White didn’t start being dominant until his third year, only putting up 952 yards in his first two seasons combined before breaking out in 2007.
While looking at these players and the success they had after a slow start is nice, it can also be wishful thinking. Baldwin is a Chief, so I try to maintain a glass-half-full mindset about him; but success, like the three players I mentioned above, is often rare. Nothing is certain in the NFL, but what is certain for me is a set of numbers that Baldwin will have to achieve before I feel confident about him going past the 2012 season. Out of those 45 wide receivers drafted in round one between 2000 and 2010, all but three went on to have a second season (the exceptions being R. Jay Soward, Rashaun Woods, and the Chiefs very own Sylvester Morris). So given the 42 remaining players, this is the line Baldwin has to achieve to keep pace with the average: 48.4 catches, 691.2 yards, 4.7 TDs.
In other words, can Baldwin achieve about 49 catches for about 700 yards and about 5 TDs.
It’s going to be a crowded receiving corps — between Baldwin, Breaston, Dexter McCluster, Devon Wylie, and Bowe when he returns — considering the Chiefs are a run-first team. Bill Williamson of ESPN, however, believes Baldwin can at least achieve the catch part of his target line. In a mailbag question, Williamson said that 50 catches for Baldwin this season is a “steep, but reasonable, expectation.” If Baldwin gets his 50 touches and maintains the same yards per catch he did last season (12.1), he’s looking at 605 yards. Still short, however, of the target line I have made for him in my mind.
But 2012 has yet to be written, and Baldwin has a lot to prove. This training camp seems to have raised his stock in the minds of everyone watching. Not having seen him myself, I can only take the word of those who have that he has vastly improved from his training camp display a year ago. Assuming that, is it crazy to think Baldwin can’t achieve these numbers? As Kent Babb of the Kansas City Star wrote, “Cassel already looks more comfortable with the youngster than he ever has with Bowe. There’s more confidence that Baldwin will run a perfect route, will be there when the ball arrives, will hold onto it when it hits his hands.”
As Bowe continues to holdout, Baldwin is making his teammate less important. He’s doing all the right things, he’s making all the catches; he’s a buzz-builder, a secret weapon, a player determined to make a name for himself. Bowe, on the other hand, is beginning to have the necessity of his presence questioned, and not just by fans.
So what do you think, Chiefs nation? Can Baldwin achieve the 49/700/5 line I established, or will he fall short? Maybe more importantly, how will Bowe be impacted by Baldwin’s performance? Fill up the comments section.