Wednesday August 3rd, 2016

The rankings

The SI rank—Beller: No. 25 WR, No. 47 overall | Fitz: No. 19 WR, No. 34 overall

The consensus rankNo. 25 WR, No. 54 overall

The skinny

It’s impossible to overstate how equally remarkable and unlikely Doug Baldwin’s final eight weeks of last season turned out. Through Seattle’s first eight games, he was middling about as your standard WR5, catching 31 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns. That was pretty much par for the course for a receiver who averaged 49 receptions, 689.25 yards and 3.75 touchdowns over the first four years of his career.

Everything took a dramatic turn on a Sunday night in the middle of November with the 6–2 Cardinals in town for a crucial NFC West showdown against Baldwin’s 4–4 Seahawks. Seattle lost, 39–32, but Baldwin had a monster game, catching seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. After a modest six-catch, 60-yard game the following week, he went on a tear previously matched by only Jerry Rice. Baldwin scored 11 touchdowns over his next five games, racking up a total of 29 receptions for 484 yards. He averaged 22.88 points per game in standard-scoring leagues during the stretch, carrying a number of his owners to championship glory. He finished the year as the league’s No. 7 fantasy receiver, and his 14 TDs were tied with Allen Robinson and Brandon Marshall for the most in the league.

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Baldwin’s star turn over the second half of last season was unprecedented. Forget about him simply setting new career highs across the board. He smashed all of his previous personal marks, in sometimes-comical fashion. He had 15 total touchdowns entering last season, and nearly reached that total in seven games. He bested his prior career high in yards by nearly 30%. Baldwin had all of one multi-touchdown game in his career before last season, and then had four straight from Week 12 through 15. Occasionally, we’ll see second- or third-year players make a huge leap, but Baldwin was a seemingly known commodity in his fifth season. I would have thought it impossible if I didn’t watch it happen last year.

In the final week of June, the Seahawks inked Baldwin to a four-year, $46 million contract, with $24.25 million in guaranteed money. It will be much harder for fantasy owners to pin down his value in our corner of the football universe. Can we really take the Baldwin of the last eight games of 2015 at face value? Is he going to revert to his previously average ways?

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The answer is that the Baldwin we get this season will almost certainly fall somewhere in between the two halves we saw from him last year. It’s true that his second half was an extreme outlier for his career, but it’s just as true that he had more opportunity to make plays over those eight games than he ever had previously for an extended period. Over the first eight games of last season, Baldwin averaged five targets per game. In the last eight, he saw eight targets in a typical contest. Now that the genie’s out of the bottle, the Seahawks can’t—nor would they want to—force it back in by relegating Baldwin to the five targets per game he averaged for the first four and a half years of his career. Baldwin showed himself a No. 1 receiver last season. The Seahawks will treat him as such this year.

Baldwin scored 12 of his touchdowns and ran 80% of his routes from the slot last year. That won’t change this season, and that’s great news for his fantasy value.

Slot receivers typically draw nickel corners in coverage, though that might not be the case for Baldwin this year after the numbers he put up last season. Elite slot receivers are also more dependent on route running, cutting ability and finding soft areas in zones. Those are the sorts of traits that don’t go into a slump and aren’t necessarily dependent on overwhelming athleticism. More and more upper-crust receivers, such as Odell Beckham Jr., are lining up inside with greater frequency, but the slot remains the purview of guys like Baldwin, Jarvis Landry and Julian Edelman.

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It must also be noted that Baldwin began his four-game multi-touchdown streak in the same game that Jimmy Graham suffered a season-ending knee injury. Graham missed Seattle’s final seven games, including the playoffs, with a torn patellar tendon. The team still isn’t sure just how much he’ll be able to participate in training camp, though Pete Carroll continues to say he’ll be ready for the first game of the season.

Another factor is, of course, the continued improvement of Russell Wilson, who’s coming off his best season as a pro. Wilson has always been a dropback-passer first with the right mix of scrambling ability to keep plays alive. He took a giant leap in his maturation last season, completing 68.1% of his passes and throwing for 4,024 yards, 8.33 yards per attempt and 34 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He’s nearly as important to the Baldwin breakout as the receiver is himself, and there’s no doubting the chemistry these two share with one another.

The prediction

Baldwin is one of the most fascinating players in drafts this season. While it would be foolish to expect him to cross the goal line 14 times again, everything he did in last year’s second half was built on a strong foundation. His bettable upside falls short of WR1 territory, but he could easily get back into the top 20 at the position, with 80 catches, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns all benchmarks well within reach.

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