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Baldwin, Sherman filling big roles

Posted Oct 16, 2012

One, Doug Baldwin, came as a rookie free agent. The other, Richard Sherman, was a fifth-round draft choice. But they have become cornerstone players for the Seahawks in only their second seasons.

Making it in the NFL, and then staying in the NFL, is all about taking advantage of the opportunities that come your way – especially when you enter the league as a rookie free agent or lower-round draft choice.

Just look at Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman.

Baldwin made the Seahawks last year as a rookie free agent, and ended up leading the team in receptions and receiving yards – the first rookie free agent to turn that twin trick since Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers in 1960. Sherman was a fifth-round draft choice, and the third option at left cornerback who was pushed into the starting lineup at midseason because of injuries to Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond.

But this week, the Stanford grads not only are returning to the Bay Area for the Seahawks’ Thursday night game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park – and their former college coach, Jim Harbaugh – they are two big reasons the Seahawks have won two in a row and four of their past five.

Baldwin missed most of training camp and all of the preseason with a hamstring injury, then injured a shoulder in practice last month. But in Sunday’s 24-23 victory over the New England Patriots, he caught two passes for 74 yards – a 24-yarder for the Seahawks’ first touchdown and a 50-yarder to setup the scoring pass.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Baldwin said Tuesday. “First the hamstring, then the shoulder. I’m just starting to get my feet underneath me again and feeling the emotions of playing in the NFL again.”

Baldwin has been missed, by the entire offense and especially rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

“It’s nice having Doug back,” Wilson said. “He’s obviously a tremendous receiver and can do a lot of great things. He runs extremely well. He understands defenses and understands what guys are trying to do to him. He understands how to get open.”

Sherman, meanwhile, leads the team in interceptions (three) and passes defensed (10). He also has 23 tackles and a forced fumble for a defense that ranks fourth in the league in average yards allowed (294.7) and second in average points allowed (15.5) – and is not the same defense the 49ers faced in sweeping the Seahawks last season.Richard Sherman

“We’ve all gotten better since last year,” Sherman said. “A lot of things have changed – our game, the confidence guys play with. It’s made us a better defense.”

And confidence definitely is a key element to Sherman’s still-expanding game.

“I’ve been sold on Richard even before he started balling like he is now. It was a confidence thing,” Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas said. “And you can see it now; he’s playing with a lot of confidence and making a lot of stuff look easy out there. He’s tall and he’s long, and he uses his body well.”

These two – the 6-foot-3 Sherman and the 5-10 Baldwin – took very different paths to get where they are.

Baldwin was one of the top-rated receivers in the country coming out of Gulf Breeze High School in Florida. Sherman also went to Stanford as a highly rated wide receiver, out of Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., and after turning down the recruiting efforts of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll when he was at USC.

Yes, these two were participating in the same drills for the Cardinal.

“I don’t like to tell him this to his face, but he was a pretty decent receiver,” Baldwin said. “When they decided to make the change I was kind of hesitant about it. I was like, ‘Richard Sherman playing corner?’ It didn’t make sense to me.”

Sherman didn’t move to cornerback until his senior season, which makes his transition into a Pro Bowl-caliber cover man in the NFL all the more improbable. But he uses the skills and instincts he developed as a receiver to now matchup with receivers.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Baldwin said when asked about Sherman’s rapid development as a cornerback. “He has that tenacity and that wherewithal about himself that whatever situation he’s placed in he’s going to be extraordinary in it.

“I remember him in college telling me he was going to be the best corner on our team. And I had no doubt about that. Sherm loves to talk, but he also loves to back it up.”

Their return to the Bay Area comes at a time when the Seahawks and 49ers share the NFC West lead with the Arizona Cardinals. All three teams are 4-2.

The Seahawks opened the season in San Francisco last year, and it turned into a mini coming-out party for Baldwin. He caught four passes for 83 yards, including a 55-yard TD reception where he ran right past Harbaugh on the 49ers’ sideline – while running south, toward Stanford.Doug Baldwin Richard Sherman Pete Carroll

Baldwin got more opportunities because Sidney Rice was inactive for the game because of an injury and Ben Obomanu was injured during the game.

“I just wanted to take advantage of the opportunities I was given,” Baldwin said. “We had some wide receivers that were hurt, so I had an opportunity to get in there and play right away.”

Sherman had to wait longer for his chance. When Trufant went out for the season with a back issue after four games, Thurmond stepped in. But when Thurmond got a season-ended ankle injury in the Week 7 game against the Browns in Cleveland, look who became the starter on the left side.

“When he came in and played in the Cincinnati game and had a good game,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said of Sherman’s first start last season, “I think that caught all our attention. It was, ‘Boy, he’s got a chance to be pretty salty back there.’

“Richard was always pretty sharp. He picked up on some things. But he’s putting it together now with what everybody else is doing. He understands where Earl is going to be, where Kam (Chancellor, the strong safety) is going to be. He’ll talk to them almost prior to the play.”

So here they are – the soft-spoken Baldwin and the outspoken Sherman – about to let their actions speak once again in a nationally televised game where they Seahawks will need every play they can deliver.

“There’s going to be a lot of people there I know,” Baldwin said. “Obviously, playing against Jim Harbaugh is a little extra incentive. Other than that, it’s just another football game that we’ve got to win.”