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It’s only February, but there are weights to be lifted, sprints to be run and video to be reviewed.
Welcome to the NFL offseason, Doug Baldwin style.
The Seahawks’ 2011 season ended the day after their overtime loss to the Cardinals in Arizona on New Year’s Day. The team’s 2012 offseason conditioning program doesn’t start until April 16, almost a month later than in previous years because of the new CBA that came into effect following the 136-day lockout that erased the offseason last year.
Doug Baldwin ranked among the best rookie receivers in the NFL last season in all the important categories:
But you would never know it by watching Baldwin go through his almost-daily routine at Virginia Mason Athletic Center. And everything must be done on his own, another stipulation in the new offseason rules governing teams and their players.
“I have lots to improve on, lots that I can learn,” Baldwin said. “I know I can do so much more, in terms of my assignments and catching every ball that’s thrown to me. So I have lots to do and I’m anxious to get it done.”
Baldwin’s production after not being drafted last year caught some by surprise. He did, after all, lead the team in receptions and receiving yards – joining Steve Largent (1976) and John Carlson (2008) as the only rookies in club history to do it.
But the closer you look, the better Baldwin looked. While his receptions (51), receiving yards (788) and touchdown catches (four) ranked fourth, fourth and sixth among the rookie receivers in the league, he was first in third-down receptions (25), shared the lead in receptions of 20-plus yards (19) and was second in receiving first downs (40) and percentage of receptions that produced first downs (.784, 40 of 51).
Until, that is, you talk to Baldwin. Ask about a big play he made – like his 55-yard TD catch in the season opener against the 49ers in San Francisco; his 27-yard scoring play that proved to be the game-winner in the Week 5 upset of the Super Bowl champion Giants in New York; or his 29-yard TD catch in Week 14 against the St. Louis Rams on “Monday Night Football” – and he’ll tell you about the little things he could have done better.
“In all actuality, if you look at the numbers they’re real average for wide receivers in the NFL,” Baldwin said. “And that’s not what I want to be known for. Regardless of me being undrafted, that’s not what I want my legacy to be.”
Fair enough. Baldwin’s 51 receptions tied for 35th in the NFC, didn’t crack the Top 50 in the league and also were the lowest total to lead the Seahawks in a 16-game season. His 788 receiving yards were 25th in the NFC, 43rd in the NFL and rank eighth among those to lead the Seahawks in a 16-game season.
“My goal is to be known as one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game,” Baldwin said.
Before anyone could offer a double-take, he added, “Why would you step on the field if you weren’t going for that goal? So for me, it was a real average year.”
Hearing that just makes receivers coach Kippy Brown smile. Like all the other offensive coaches, as well as the scouts who watched Baldwin at Stanford, Brown knew the team had gotten a steal when it signed Baldwin as a free agent in late July. But that doesn’t mean Baldwin didn’t surprise his position coach, as well.
“I didn’t expect him to be as mature as he was,” Brown said. “He realizes the importance of practice. He’s very serious in practice. He’s very serious in meetings. He’s very hard to distract. When he gets his mind on what he’s trying to do, he doesn’t get distracted.
“And you don’t get many rookies who can do that. He’s mature beyond his years.”
But as Baldwin, 23, proved game after game, he wasn’t just any rookie wide receiver.
“Doug is a serious guy – serious about his business,” Brown said. “He really works at preparing and he’s very, very competitive. I think that’s what separates him a little bit.
“He prepares. He knows what’s getting ready to happen to him. He prepare for it. He’s got the right mindset. He’s just a natural competitor.”
And the competition isn’t just with those who are trying to cover him, or even the 28 rookie receivers who were drafted last year. Count Baldwin among those that Baldwin is competing against.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, and for whatever the reason I went undrafted,” he said. “But thankfully I had an opportunity here to play and contribute right away. But at the same time, I know I can do so much more.”
Take his eight-catch, 136-yard effort against the Giants – both season-best totals.
“In the Giants’ game, I had three big missed assignments,” Baldwin said. “One of them ended up with a catch, but regardless I could have messed up the play. One thing that I did learn throughout my career is that, regardless of if you make the play or not, if you’re not doing the right things all the time then you’re hurting the team.
“That’s one of the main things on my mind and a goal for next year, is to eliminate all the simple mistakes.”
What Baldwin does best is work the middle of the field from the slot in the three- and four-receiver packages. That’s how he produced those 25 third-down receptions – seven more than runner-up Julio Jones, the Atlanta Falcons’ rookie.
“He got here with that ability to stick and move, and get away from defenders,” Brown said. “And he’s got a nose for the ball.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s all he can do.
“Doug can play outside,” Brown said, referring to the flanker and split end positions. “We played him a lot in the slot on third down, but this kid can go outside and play, too. So he’s not limited to being a slot receiver.
“As a matter of fact, when you have a guy like him, you want to get him on the field. He can play pretty much anywhere he wants to play. We just have to do a good determining where that might be.”
Brown caught himself and then added, “Now, he is valuable in the slot on third down? Very much so. We know that. But he’s not limited to that.”
Which is why Baldwin has taken up almost-permanent residence at VMAC this offseason. He realizes the way to get better next season starts with working toward that goal in the offseason.
“As Doug develops his body – gets a little quicker and faster; strong – he’ll be able to do more things athletically,” Brown said. “And then he’ll just understand the game a lot more. The speed of the game. What people are trying to do to him, how they played him.
“He’s a serious young man. He’s a hard worker. He’s very intelligent. And he loves football. So that’s a pretty good combination.”