Even After His New Contract, Doug Baldwin Is One of the NFL's Most Valuable Receivers
With the current group of young receivers in the NFL and the rising salary cap, it’s going to be hard to find a new contract that doesn't look like a nice deal for both the player and team nowadays.
It’s an increasingly pass-heavy league, and these receivers have become too valuable not to lock up for the long-term. We saw it first with Allen Hurns and then, less than two weeks later, with Keenan Allen. Now it’s Doug Baldwin.
Baldwin isn’t exactly in the age range of these receivers who came into the league within the past three seasons -- he’ll be entering his age-28 season and has somehow been in the league since 2011 -- but that doesn’t make him any less deserving.
The four-year, $46 million deal with $24.25 million guaranteed is already Baldwin’s third contract in the NFL. He still feels new because of his breakout 1,000-yard receiving season in 2015, but Baldwin has been an important piece of the Seahawks' passing offense for some time.
Baldwin came into the league as an undrafted free agent for the 2011 season. He made an immediate impact that year, seeing 85 targets which led the team. Those passes were thrown by Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst, if you’d like to add in a degree-of-difficulty factor.
When Russell Wilson took over in 2012, Baldwin took a bit of a back seat as the fourth option in the passing game behind Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Zach Miller. But starting the next season, Baldwin was again one of the main weapons through the air and has seen his targets increase in each subsequent year.
It’s not easy getting a high volume of passes in the Seattle offense with the way it was set up to revolve around Marshawn Lynch, but Baldwin was able to make the most of the opportunities he was able to get.
Here’s where Baldwin has ranked in Reception NEP per target in each season of his career so far (minimum of 32 targets):
|2011||51||85||0.91||11 (of 116)|
|2012||29||50||0.69||43 (of 116)|
|2013||50||73||0.95||4 (of 114)|
|2014||66||98||0.69||48 (of 109)|
|2015||78||103||1.01||2 (of 116)|
Baldwin has always been good, but his 2015 was really good. Baldwin finished the year with a Reception NEP per target over 1.0 on more than 100 targets. That’s something that’s only been done 10 other times since 2000, which is how far back our NEP data goes.
Here’s the list of the eight receivers who accomplished this, along with two tight ends: Randy Moss (2000), Sidney Rice (2009), Vincent Jackson (2009), Brandon Stokley (2004), Santana Moss (2005), Victor Cruz (2011), Terrell Owens (2007), Marques Colston (2011) Rob Gronkowski (2011) and Antonio Gates (2009). That’s not bad company.
Stretch the Field
As he’s grown as a wide receiver, Baldwin has become Wilson’s safety net in the passing game. A majority of Baldwin’s routes finish in the middle of the field, where he excels at finding holes in coverage and allowing Wilson to find him for gaining chunks of yards at a time. His ability to get open was so important last season that he became Seattle’s first 100-plus target receiver since Mike Williams in 2010.
Versatility is also a big part of Baldwin’s game. He thrives at working the middle of the field, but he can also handle the outside, too. And he can get to each part of the field lining up either in the slot or out wide. His technique allows him to get behind defenders and break big plays. Baldwin has good speed -- no, he's not a conventional deep threat -- but he’s able to get open down the field when needed. This allows him to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally, making him incredibly difficult to cover.
In this play against Arizona from this past season, Baldwin is lined up outside to the left, stacked with Tyler Lockett. Off the line, Baldwin angles just enough to get inside Tyrann Mathieu without contact, as Mathieu takes his attention to Lockett on the outside. Baldwin then takes on Jerraud Powers, who was playing off the stack with Baldwin as his responsibility. About six yards into the route, Baldwin takes a false step inside and with a head fake sends Powers trying to jump the break in the route. This gives Baldwin all he needs to get past the turned-around defender for a touchdown. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)
Baldwin is the most dangerous, though, when he lines up in the slot. We’ve talked about how he works the middle of the field so well, especially with shorter routes that tend to go for easy completions. But Baldwin can take the ability he has to shake defenders on the outside and magnify the devastation with the ability to break routes to either side of the field.
Against Minnesota during the regular season, Baldwin had himself what was probably the best game of his career. Most of that damage came from the slot. Below he works against Antone Exum as the most inside receiver with two to his right. Baldwin works up the field and again delivers a stutter step to the outside which freezes the corner back and breaks Baldwin wide open for the score as soon as he cuts back inside.
It’s hard to look at everything above and not realize how important Baldwin has been to this offense. But one of the most significant things Baldwin’s new contract accomplished was keeping the current crop of Seattle receivers together for the next few years. Jermaine Kearse surprisingly returned to the Seahawks in the offseason with a three-year, $13.5 million deal, and Tyler Lockett is under contract through 2018 with his rookie deal.
This wasn’t just one of the best groups of receivers in the league last season -- the offense ranked third in Adjusted Passing NEP per play -- but individually, all three were incredibly efficient. Baldwin (2nd), Lockett (3rd) and Kearse (16th) all finished in the top-20 of Reception NEP per target. Two other teams had two receivers in the top-20 -- Arizona and Miami -- and the best third-ranked receiver for an offense was 48th.
With Marshawn Lynch now retired, there could be a shift toward a heavier volume in the passing game in Seattle. With the resources put into that side of the ball, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Seattle’s had an efficient passing attack during the Wilson era, and now there might be more of it. Outside of the quarterback, there might not be a more important piece to that than Doug Baldwin. The Seahawks know that, and they just paid him to let the rest of the league know, too.