Fantasy Football: Doug Baldwin Isn't as Safe as You Might Think

Doug Baldwin is receiving a lot of attention in 2018, but should we be pumping the brakes on him as a top-10 receiver?

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. It isn’t always easy and sometimes it makes for some challenging self-reflection, but here I go:

I have a problem with Doug Baldwin in fantasy football. I am not buying into him and his elevated expectations as a WR1 for the 2018 season.

That didn’t feel as good as I thought it would. But how could it? There might not be anyone receiving more hype in the fantasy community this offseason. Yet here I am, crossing my arms and resisting the temptation to jump aboard the train.

My favorite writers, many of whom I have Twitter notifications turned on to read their work as soon as it posts, are pushing Baldwin as a lock. I get the excitement and understand the reasoning for it -- I do, but I still have some major issues with all the hype.

My self-reflection has already begun. Should fantasy owners really be drafting Baldwin to be their top receiver this season? I must adamantly say no.

Matchup-Losing Performances

Baldwin has shown throughout his career that he has a tremendous ceiling, one that has enabled him to finish as a top-12 asset in each of the past three years. He is also an analytical darling, frequently showcasing himself as an elite talent with his ability to score and rack up fantasy points in a less-than-wide-open Seattle Seahawks offense.

Baldwin's string of top-12 season-long finishes are widely lauded, but finding week-to-week consistency is often more important than finding a player's yearly ceiling. In other words, assessing how a player performs on a game-to-game basis is more important than looking at statistics at the end of the season to determine their worth. For Baldwin and the Seahawks, it is important to assess just how detrimental his poor weeks can be, as well as how often they occur.

Here at numberFire, Peter Lawrence did an excellent job showcasing the lack of consistency Baldwin provided last season in his article early last month. He pointed out that Baldwin only produced stud WR1 numbers in four games during the 2017 season, and one of those was in week 17, when most leagues are already decided. In three weeks of the season, he did not even finish within the top 60 of wide receivers. In Week 15, a fantasy playoff week, he finished with a single catch (on four targets) for six yards.

That’ll cost ya a championship, folks.

Even when the team is down, quarterback Russell Wilson doesn’t lock onto Baldwin the way other quarterbacks tend to do with their top-flight receivers. That right there is the very thing that terrifies me about Baldwin. There were nine weeks last season where Wilson targeted Baldwin six times or fewer. In 2016, Baldwin had eight instances where he had six targets or fewer as well. In 2015, he had seven instances with six targets or fewer.

This is far from a one-year outlier, as Wilson's target distribution has proven to be problematic for Baldwin's fantasy appeal. His up-and-down fantasy performances don’t necessarily reflect his talent nor Wilson's.

Season Lead Receiver Lead Receiver Targets Rank
2017 Doug Baldwin 116 16
2016 Doug Baldwin 125 17
2015 Doug Baldwin 103 23
2014 Doug Baldwin 98 27
2013 Golden Tate 98 30
2012 Sidney Rice 82 32

The table showcases where Seattle's number-one target ranks on a league-wide scale since Wilson joined the league. As shown, the number-one or most heavily targeted receiver has been, at best, around average, but more often than not significantly below it during this timeframe. The hope is that this will change in the upcoming season.

Increase in Targets?

Some of the biggest proponents of Baldwin's 2018 prospects point to a potential increase in targets. According to numberFire’s projections, Baldwin is projected for a big year, too. Our models have him finishing with a career-high 134 targets this year, to go along with what would be a career-high 1,187 yards this year. However, that increase is far from an astronomical increase from 2016, when he finished with 1,128 yards on 125 targets.

Additionally, Seattle’s 217 available targets from players who have left the team is among the highest in the league heading into 2018. Theoretically, it should mean a large increase for Baldwin’s looks, something he certainly could use to balance that consistency. But can we really be sure that is going to be the case?

Let’s look at the types of targets Seattle will be missing this season.

Raise your hand nice and high if you expected Paul Richardson to have 80 targets in 2017, after having only 80 targets total in his entire career before last season. Right… Still, Richardson's departure in free agency opens up a large portion of those targets and perhaps shows best that when it comes to target share, players lower on the depth chart -- not just the top dog -- could see increases in opportunities.

Exactly 154 of the remaining targets come from the departures of Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson, both tight ends. While the position was not addressed in detail, idealizing that Baldwin will receive the biggest chunk of these targets is questionable at best. Nick Vannett and Ed Dickson are not true receiving tight ends, but they will take up some of those missing targets from a position their quarterback loved to target last season.

The same is true for other new additions. Sometimes, the fantasy community seems to think in absolutes. Brandon Marshall and Jaron Brown, as much as we might like to think otherwise, will indeed have roles on the offense after joining the receiving corps this offseason. Their signings may not be exciting -- especially the 34-year-old Marshall’s -- but they won’t receive zero targets and will likely have decent sized roles to start the season. Tyler Lockett, who had only 69 targets last season, is also expected to generate an uptick in targets and perhaps finally capitalize on the frequently hyped potential he has failed to live up to as a Seattle receiver.

On top of this, there is a desire to change from being a pass-heavy attack to a more equally balanced one in Seattle this season. The number of pass attempts the Seahawks attempt could be vastly different as a result. So while Baldwin will likely see an increase in targets from last season, just how much and how significant it will be for his consistency is an unknown. And part of that comes from the changes in the coaching staff.

A New Offense

After a disappointing season for Baldwin and the team, the Seahawks decided change was necessary. When Brian Schottenheimer was brought on as the new offensive coordinator to replace Darrell Bevell, though, that change was questioned immediately.

The football world reacted in a justifiably upset manner. As an offensive coordinator, the son of legendary Marty Schottenheimer has been excessively underwhelming. Despite showing some semblance of ability and creativity, especially highlighted in his first year as a coordinator of the New York Jets in 2006, the results speak for themselves.

His offenses were bad if not putrid. His team finished above the bottom-12 teams in total offense just two times in his nine-year stint as offensive coordinator. But his struggles are not relegated to just “real” football. They were also bad from a fantasy perspective.

For fantasy purposes, the highest ranking a wide receiver has had from a Schottenheimer-led offense was 14th back in 2006. So not only is Wilson's usage of his top receiver a bit scary but so is his new coordinator's.

Of course, I'm not delusional. The argument is that this Seattle offense, with a stud quarterback and Doug Baldwin, is far better for Schotty than his past situations. He has never worked with a quarterback as good as Russell Wilson and that is undeniable.

But still, why hire him of all people to experiment with this offense? It probably has to do with the idea that Seattle wants to “get back” to rushing the ball successfully and the belief that Schottenheimer is the guy to do it.

Re-establishing the Run

When Schottenheimer's New York Jets (under Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan) were having the most success as a team, it was rushing the ball. With 607 carries in 2009 and 534 in 2010, the Jets ranked as the first- and second-ranked rush offenses in back-to-back season. And they rode that approach to two straight AFC Championship games.

Although he was far from run-centric with the St. Louis Rams, his reputation for playing run-first football is something he embraces. It would appear that is what he is looking to bring to a team that had historical struggles running the ball in 2017, and understandably so, with their quarterback leading the team in rushing yards for just the fifth time in NFL history.

In interviews with Schottenheimer and Carroll, the offensive emphasis has been on the running game. The Seahawks drafted running back Rashaad Penny 27th overall in the first round, and only a cork could keep Carroll from spewing his excitement over a returning Chris Carson. When the Seahawks were competing in Super Bowls (in 2013 and 2014), they did it with an emphasis on running the ball (with Marshawn Lynch), so it's not all that surprising to see them focusing on that part of the offense.

If that attitude sticks, maybe the available targets won’t be quite as significant because Wilson’s 553 pass attempts from last season will be significantly scaled back as they attempt to keep the the ball on the ground more. Wilson ranked sixth in pass attempts last year, but even though many saw him as an MVP candidate, it's feasible that Carroll limits his volume in a way similar to those of the Super Bowl squads.

Season Wilson Pass Attempts Rank
2017 553 6
2016 546 15
2015 483 18
2014* 452 19
2013* 407 22
2012 393 26

Wilson has increased his attempts every season since entering the league. The Seahawks' once elite defense has not been as strong recently, and that's a trend that should continue absent Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and others this season. Therefore, it seems pretty fair to assume it won't be easy to cut back on Wilson's pass attempts.

But all of the comments in interviews about bettering the rushing attack and the hiring of Schottenheimer feels like more than just a smoke screen. Sometimes, where there is smoke, there is fire.

All signs have pointed toward fewer attempts for Wilson, which means fewer chances for guys like Baldwin to capitalize on a spike in targets. With increases over the past two years, the Seahawks haven't exactly had big success either. Obviously, there won’t be a full-scale return to Wilson's early career numbers; he is simply too good for that. Still, a substantial cutback is in the cards.

A Risky Proposition

Baldwin is a genuinely great player and clearly has the type of upside that makes him an enticing buy at his ADP of WR10. But it is important for owners to realize the risk that comes with investing early in a receiver that has struggled to be consistent and avoid goose eggs at times.

It may feel like a “hot take”, but if Baldwin is the top receiver on the board, holding off on drafting your top receiver and instead focusing on strengthening other positions could be the way to go. The risky fluctuation of his past production on a game-by-game basis, as well as the questions that surround the Seahawks' offense should encourage drafters to look elsewhere for this season.

If Baldwin capitalizes on his opportunity and has the huge season that many are expecting of him, it won't be a surprising. Fading Baldwin is an unpopular move. But bypassing the risk that comes with relying on him as a top receiving option could prove profitable by season's end.