Is there a player who commands less respect in football circles than Doug Baldwin? Maybe it's his lack of prototypical size (5'10'', 189 lbs.), or maybe it's because Doug Baldwin is also the name of the guy who does my taxes, but both NFL scouts and fake footballers have been giving poor Baldwin the Rodney Dangerfield treatment for the better part of three years now. A brief history:
In Baldwin's senior year at Stanford (2010), he was Andrew Luck's favorite target, finishing with 418 more yards than the next closest Cardinal wide receiver. The breakout effort didn't even earn Baldwin a combine invite.
Baldwin shook off the combine snub and had an impressive pro day. He ran a 4.47 forty, 4.26 shuttle, 6.65 cone drill, and his vertical measured 37”. For context, the top combine performer that year was Julio Jones, who ran a 4.39 forty, 4.25 shuttle, 6.66 cone drill, and had a 38.5” vertical (OK, Julio has five inches and 30 pounds on Baldwin, but still). None of it mattered. Baldwin got passed up by all 32 teams in the NFL draft. Even his own college coach, Jim Harbaugh, refused to take a late-round flier.
In true Doug Baldwin fashion, all he did after making the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent was lead Seattle in receptions (51), receiving yards (788), and receiving touchdowns (4). The numberFire data supported his breakthrough 2011 performance, as Baldwin finished top-10 in Reception Net Expected Points per target (minimum 50 targets). This was no small feat considering Baldwin was targeted more than 20 yards down the field on a pedestrian 21% of his routes, and the Rec NEP/Target metric usually favors big play receivers. Naturally, fantasy owners reacted by making Baldwin the 60th wide receiver off draft boards headed into 2012.
In retrospect, passing on Baldwin wasn't a poor decision. 2012 was a lost season, as nagging injuries sapped his effectiveness and he became an afterthought in Seattle's run-first offense. This season, Baldwin has shown flashes of his 2011 form, but hasn't seen enough looks in the passing game to warrant fantasy consideration (3.75 targets per game through week 8).
So why the history lesson on a little used slot receiver who plays for the second most run heavy team in the league?
Fresh off a useful 6-75-1 line against Tampa Bay in Week 9, it looks like Baldwin's opportunity is about to catch up to his talent. When those two beams cross for any player, it matters in fantasy football. Baldwin is shaping up as a top bye week replacement or injury fill-in at receiver, at least in the near term. Let's explore further...
Our nerdy stats are once again smiling on Baldwin. He's currently outperforming his 2011 Reception NEP/Target pace, ranking sixth in the metric among pass catchers who have been targeted at least 40 times. His lofty standing at numberFire can be attributed to extreme efficiency. Baldwin's sterling 72.5% catch rate improves to an otherworldly 96% when the targets become catchable.
Baldwin saw a season-high 10 targets against Tampa, a number I wouldn't count on him reaching in a game again this season. After all, he saw only 11 total targets in the entire month of October, and likely received a bump in this game because Golden Tate (who usually sees 6.5 targets per game) was removed from the game plan by Darrelle Revis.
But just because he's unlikely to keep seeing double digit targets doesn't mean Baldwin can't get enough work to help your fantasy team. It's encouraging that in the only sample we have of the Seahawks passing game post-Sidney Rice (torn ACL, done for the year), it was Baldwin who benefited most.
Rice's departure opens up five targets per game in Seattle. If last Sunday's usage was any indication, Baldwin's average targets per game should bump up to about six, putting him right back in 2011 territory (5.66 TPG), when he averaged 10.25 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues (with Tavaris Jackson and Chaz Whitehurst as his quarterbacks).
Even though Seattle has the second-most rushing attempts in the league, there's enough touchdown potential in their passing game lately to buoy Baldwin's short term value. In a bizarre turn of events, the Seahawks have shied away from using Marshawn Lynch in the red zone, helping Russell Wilson touchdown total - seven - over the last three games.
Baldwin saw two targets from inside the 10 against the Bucs, converting on the scoring play that sent the game to overtime. He would have caught the first one too had Wilson not thrown a horrible interception - check the 1:55 mark for visual confirmation. It's fair to consider Baldwin a 50/50 proposition to get you a score as long as he continues soaking up most of Rice's targets.
The matchups certainly won't be a hindrance to Baldwin's WR3 potential in the next two games either. According to numberFire's defensive passing NEP data, the Seahawks' next two opponents, Atlanta and Minnesota, are the two worst teams against the pass in the NFL when you adjust for quality of opponent. If you were thinking of taking the plunge on Baldwin, now would definitely be the time.
After those two terrific matchups, the Seahawks head into the bye, at which point all bets are off.
I suspect we'll see Percy Harvin (one of the premier slot receivers in the game) debut in Week 13. If Harvin is healthy, it's tough to imagine Baldwin retaining WR3 value, as he's currently running 70% of his routes from the slot.
You could argue that Baldwin is listed as Rice's backup at the "Z" receiver position on Seattle's depth chart, so he won't completely disappear when Harvin returns, but the third option in a low-yield passing game is not someone you want starting on your fantasy team.
Don't let that dissuade you from reaping the short-term benefits though. Odds are if you're thin enough at wide receiver to kick the tires on Baldwin, it's only as a temporary stopgap anyway. Over the next two weeks, you won't find many widely unowned wideouts in better position for production than Baldwin. If it makes you feel better, close your eyes and pretend his name is something cool like Kentavious Caldwell Baldwin.