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Remove emotion, accept reality: Doug Baldwin must beat the odds again

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Doug Baldwin started his NFL career by beating the odds. As one of the most successful undrafted free agent rookies in league history, Baldwin caught 51 passes for 788 yards while playing with Tarvaris Jackson and little else besides himself in the way of receiving weapons. Baldwin surprisingly had worse production with the installation of Russell Wilson into the offense in 2012, dropping to 366 yards in 14 games.

When the Seahawks had 58 points against the Cardinals, Baldwin had two catches for 29 yards. When they put up 50 the next week on the Bills, Baldwin had one catch for eight yards. In the playoff loss to the Falcons, Baldwin had three targets, one catch, and six yards.

It doesn’t seem like it could even be the same player that we know today — if Baldwin only gets three targets in a game, something is clearly wrong — and that’s because he’s been one of the NFL’s most reliable targets over the last six seasons. Since 2013, Baldwin ranks 14th in yards and catches, ninth in touchdowns, 12th in yards per target and when looking just at receivers, he’s fourth in catch% over that period of time.

That same Baldwin who had zero chemistry with Wilson in 2012 has since become arguably the most valuable component next to Wilson over the last six years with the exception of maybe Marshawn Lynch.

Just like Lynch, at some point Seattle’s fans will have to accept that an end is drawing near.

Maybe Baldwin will defy the odds and play three more “Doug Baldwin” seasons but there’s nothing wrong with being rational, logical, and understanding that it would be far more unlikely than likely. That’s also how you should want your football teams to operate.

When they didn’t extend Earl Thomas, it was a “mistake” until he was hurt and then it wasn’t. Yet when they did extend Lynch, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, those moves were also labeled as “mistakes” with the benefit of hindsight. Are we criticizing the results or the process? It’s funny because I hear a lot of these types of criticisms from the “analytics” crowd on twitter, and analytics would know that process over results is the only evaluation that matters. And we can’t separate the “mistakes” from the successes simply by starting to pick apart pieces of the process that are different so they fit into a cynical narrative.

Some might label me as a cynic by writing this piece about Baldwin, but I’ve always seen myself as more overly optimistic. However I try to be as objective as possible and use historical evidence to justify my opinions on matters and in this case, history is not doing age 31 receivers much of a chance.

One bright side in the Baldwin situation from that perspective is that they certainly aren’t discussing right now if they should give him an extension. Baldwin has two more years left on the extension he signed in 2016, which pays him $13 million in 2019 and $14 million in 2020. At this point I’d give him very low odds of playing for $14 million in two seasons with at least some consideration given to the idea that Baldwin may still become a cap casualty this year if his recently announced surgeries set him back from being ready at the start of the season.

If we’re being rational over emotional, then we can accept that $6.287 million in savings in 2019, even if it is not used in 2019, is still beneficial to the team. And then you must ask yourself, not today, but after you’ve seen how Baldwin looks in training camp and preseason, and after you’ve seen how others have performed, if Baldwin coming off of a season with knee, hip, and groin injuries and with multiple surgeries this year is worth more than $6.287 million.

Keep in mind that $6.287 million is more than what K.J. Wright costs next year, more than what Bradley McDougald or Ed Dickson will make. It’s almost more than the combined salaries of Jason Myers, Mike Iupati, and Akeem King, three players signed this offseason. So you’re not asking yourself just “What is Doug Baldwin worth?” because we know that a healthy and productive Baldwin is worth a lot. We’re asking ourselves: if we removed an emotional attachment to the player would we still view him as valuable in 2019 as three potential key players?

And is there someone else who can fill in for Baldwin to at least some degree? It’s not just a matter of the surgeries either. Baldwin is 31 in September. You really have to step back, take a deep breath, and take in the fact that receivers over 30 are very rarely anything more than a far less athletic version of the player you once held dearly. Think of your most athletic friend wearing a Doug Baldwin suit and maybe you’re getting closer to the picture of what he will absolutely, 100% look like on the field one day; it looks like him and he’s definitely moving better than 97% of people, but to be in the NFL, and especially to be a Pro Bowl caliber player like Baldwin, you need to be better than 99.9%.

Name a great receiver and I’ll tell you two things, one that is certain and one that is almost certain:

  • He had a huge fanbase of believers who just like with Baldwin, thought he’d play forever, or at least until he was 34 or 35.
  • He stopped being productive by age 32

Let me go through some recent examples based first on those leaderboards I mentioned earlier from 2013-2018:

  • Demaryius Thomas: Peaked at 27 (1,619 yards), yardage has gone down in five successive seasons since, he had 677 yards split between Broncos and Texans last year. He was 31.
  • Jordy Nelson: Peaked at 29 (1,519 yards), missed all of age 30 season, had productive age 31 season (1,257 yards, 14 TD), then 482 yards in all of age 32 season. Had 739 yards with Raiders at age 33 last season but 173 yards in single game against Dolphins. This is one of the bigger success stories ever for over-32 receivers, with 739 yards.
  • A.J. Green: Highest yardage came at age 25, he had great age-27 season, has averaged 912 yards over last three seasons, dealing with injuries, poor QB play, and his own lack of production at the level he was capable of as a mid-20s guy. He will be 31 next season and coming off of injury plagued year due to toe.
  • DeSean Jackon: Peaked at age 27. Can still put up long plays and be “DeSean Jackson-esque” but he’s not able to be a 100+ target player anymore and he’s averaged 743 yards over the last four seasons with multiple injuries. He’s now 32.
  • Here’s a quicker list of names: Pierre Garcon, peaked at 27, missed half of the last two seasons after turning 31. Brandon Marshall, had an offensive explosion at 31, nothing worth writing about since. Dez Bryant, peaked at 26, not much since. Michael Crabtree, productive at 29, not much since. Eric Decker, productive at 28, career started to end at 29. Mike Wallace, came out of nowhere to put up numbers again at 30, and then went back to nowhere. Calvin Johnson, retired at 30, he must have known. Jeremy Maclin, peaked at 26. Vincent Jackson, peaked at 29, productive through 31. Marques Colston, peaked at 29, productive through 31. Emmanuel Sanders, peaked at 27, productive through 29, a decent season last year at age 31.
  • You want to go back in history a little bit: Chad Johnson averaged 673 yards per season after turning 30.

I mean, even Rob Gronkowski is 29 and he just seems to be aging five years every 12 months. It’s sort of that moment where you step outside of the box and maybe you see that Gronkowski is aging quickly because you have no emotional attachment to him, but Patriots fans probably don’t see it in the same way that you do. Players almost always slow down after they’re outside of their 20s. That’s just a reality.

I don’t think that people are quite ready to accept that and I feel more confident in saying that because it’s becoming clear to me now that we’ve been ignoring the signs for a couple of years already.

At age 27, Baldwin had an NFL-best 14 touchdowns in one of the most remarkable stretches by a receiver ever. At age 28, he had a career-high 1,128 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught 75% of the targets thrown his way and had 9.63 yards per target.

At age 29, Baldwin had 991 yards, eight touchdowns, and a catch rate of 64.7%, with 8.54 Y/T. At age 30, Baldwin missed three games, played injured through probably all of them, and had 618 yards, a catch rate of 68.5%, and 8.46 Y/T. Now here’s what I think you have to ask yourself after realizing that:

We’ve got a two-season sample size from age 27-28 and a two-season sample size from age 29-30. In one sample, Baldwin had 2,197 yards, 21 touchdowns, 75% catch rate, and 9.63 Y/T. In the other, he had 1,609 yards, 13 touchdowns, 66% catch rate, and 8.51 Y/T. There’s a significant difference between the two samples and Baldwin is now 31, not 26. He’s aging up, not down. The sample he’s far closer to is the second one. At best, you could hope for an average between the two, but what’s more likely is that at 31 he either repeats a version of the second sample or he continues to trend downwards.

Are there exceptions? Yes.

Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith, Jerry Rice, Andre Johnson, Joey Galloway, Terrell Owens, Jimmy Smith are among a very small group of receivers who put up 1,000 yard seasons after turning 32. Even in the case of someone like Randy Moss, he had a big season for the Patriots at age 32, then never really accomplished much again in the NFL after that. These are for the most part the best of the best. Ever. And they could all mostly admit that they were much more productive in their 20s than when they defied the odds in their 30s.

Baldwin may be in the 99th percentile, the rare exception that proves the rule, but you should really prepare yourself for the possibility that he won’t. Because he’s the fourth-highest paid player on the team next season. If he shrugs off his injuries and surgeries and puts up 1,000 yards with 10 touchdowns, then his $14 million cap hit in 2020 becomes a real decision. If not, then this will almost certainly be the final year of Baldwin in a Seahawks uniform barring a renegotiation that seriously cuts down his compensation, which is something I have a feeling he won’t like.

I am grateful of the Doug Baldwin we’ve been able to watch, but ready to accept that there could be a different version of Doug Baldwin that we will watch next.