It’s typically pretty tough to glean much from late-July training camp practices—where padless players run dumbed-down, sloppy versions of their team’s offense and hitting isn’t allowed. But I’ll never forget sitting on the berm overlooking Seahawks training camp back in 2011 and knowing immediately that this undrafted free-agent receiver I’d never heard of named Doug Baldwin was not only going to make the team, but could end up being a legit playmaker for Seattle from Day 1. It was clear to anyone there that day; Baldwin was open on just about every route he ran, showcasing time and again extraordinary quickness to get off the line and the ability to create separation with savvy hand-fighting or razor-sharp cuts. He drew more “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd than any other player that day.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said I knew then that Baldwin would become one of the best receivers in the league, or that he’d establish himself as the fearless, reliable, go-to guy for the Seahawks, who won double-digit games every year from 2012 to 2016 and went to back-to-back Super Bowls. At that time, Seattle was still in the infancy of its roster rebuild under new head coach Pete Carroll; Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst were the quarterbacks, Sidney Rice and Mike Williams were projected to be the team’s one-two punch downfield, and Aaron Curry was still in the league. Baldwin was brought in to replace Brandon Stokley in the slot.
Now, nearly eight years later, Baldwin’s time in Seattle—and most likely, the NFL—has come to an abrupt end. The Seahawks released the two-time Pro Bowler on Thursday with a failed physical designation, the result of a confluence of debilitating hernia, knee, shoulder, and groin injuries. That’s a massive hit to Seattle’s receiver corps, obviously, but I’m not here, right now, to talk about what that means for this team. Instead, let’s take a minute to celebrate the career—if it is indeed over—of one of the most dynamic, talented, and exciting receivers in Seahawks history.
First, the numbers: Baldwin ends his Seahawks tenure second in franchise history in touchdown receptions (49); as one of the most efficient slot receivers ever; as a prolific, clutch postseason playmaker; and the owner of historic marks for any undrafted receiver:
#Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin is one of the greatest undrafted WRs of all-time.— Russell Clay (@RussellJClay) May 9, 2019
Among UDFA WRs, Baldwin ranks:
5th in Receptions (493)
8th in receiving yards (6,563)
T-3rd in TDs (49)
5th in Receiving Yards per game (53.4)
All in only 123 games.
That’s not shabby for a guy who was passed over 254 times in the 2011 draft. And look, Baldwin went undrafted for a reason: He didn’t have incredible stats at Stanford, finishing his final year there with 58 catches for 857 yards and nine touchdowns; he wasn’t invited to the combine; and didn’t possess outstanding size (listed at his pro day at 5-foot-9, 189 pounds) or speed. But Seattle (who drafted former Georgia receiver Kris Durham in the fourth round) was at least smart enough to aggressively pursue Baldwin in rookie free agency. An enterprising John Schneider sent Baldwin a handwritten letter imploring him to sign with the team. It’s tough to credit Schneider too much here, considering Seattle didn’t actually draft Baldwin, but Schneider’s letter was incredibly spot-on in its flattery; here’s the Seahawks GM breaking down Baldwin’s unique skill set:
You could come in and challenge for early playing time because of your intelligence, passing game savvy, quickness, burst, body control, hands, and instant separation skills. We also love your ability to track the ball, go up and get it, and take it away/secure it in tight areas.
Schneider basically summed up Baldwin’s game to a tee: With sudden, choppy footwork borne from his background in basketball (here’s Richard Sherman talking about Baldwin’s Euro-step), Baldwin’s routes have left a trail of broken cornerback ankles in their wake. More than just that, though, he’s always shown the ability to twist and contort in the air to reel in passes, while somehow knowing exactly where the sideline was before toe-tapping his way to a completion. To quote my 2017 self:
Doug Baldwin's sideline awareness is like... weird— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) January 1, 2018
One of the defining plays of Baldwin’s career, at least in my mind, was this catch in a 2013 matchup with the Texans. On this crucial late-game third-down conversion, he went up high to get the ball, twisted around in the air, then jammed his toes down into the turf with an otherworldly sense for the sideline.
Despite Baldwin’s lack of size, he always played big, particularly on contested passes—where he’d regularly sky up and over defenders to reel in passes like a player 4 or 5 inches taller. This touchdown grab late in the 2012 season not only helped put the Seahawks on the map (they blew out the eventual NFC champion 49ers in that prime-time game), but birthed a thousand Pete Carroll Robber Baron memes. Wait for it.
Here, just do yourself a favor and watch this highlight reel:
Schneider’s recruitment letter wasn’t just accurate about the type of skills Baldwin would utilize over the next eight seasons, but it was also prescient in predicting the impact Baldwin would have as a foundational piece of Seattle’s core nucleus—both as a player and leader.
“Most importantly Doug,” Schneider wrote in 2011, “you fit the bill for our young program as we are looking for smart, tough, competitive, and confident football players.”
There have been more than a few end-of-an-era moments for the Seahawks over the past few years—Marshawn Lynch’s first retirement, Richard Sherman’s release, the trade that sent Michael Bennett to the Eagles, Cliff Avril’s retirement, Kam Chancellor’s (de facto) retirement, or Earl Thomas’s broken leg and bird-flipping, just to name a few—but Baldwin’s release may carry even more gravity than the rest. He’s been a fixture since nearly the start; how will Seattle cope without Baldwin’s penchant for ridiculous catches, his ability to fire up his teammates and coaches, or his passion for chiding doubters for any perceived lack of respect?
It’s simply hard to imagine the Pete Carroll–era Seahawks without Baldwin leading the vanguard; he has become woven into the fabric of this team’s identity. Baldwin’s rise from undrafted free agent to star receiver made him the poster child for Pete Carroll’s Always Compete mantra—that no matter a player’s draft spot or salary, everyone gets their shot. And while guys like Sherman and Lynch represented the Seahawks’ brash, take-no-shit-from-anyone outward persona during Seattle’s incredible run of success, Baldwin’s gritty, chip-on-your-shoulder, ultra-competitive, harder-than-a-coffin-nail toughness perfectly embodied the real soul of the team.