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Player Spotlight: Doug Baldwin

A detailed tour through the 2017 fantasy outlook for Doug Baldwin

Pros

He’s been extraordinarily productive on the sly. Dating back to Week 10 of the 2015 season – the point at which Seattle’s offense dramatically ramped up its passing – Baldwin has registered more PPR points than every NFL receiver not named Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr. And no one has caught more touchdowns over that span.

He produces even in adverse circumstances. The 2016 season was not kind to the Seattle offense. Russell Wilson battled an ankle injury and arguably the league’s worst line play throughout the year, and in turn posted his worst season as a pro. The passing volume soared, but Wilson’s adjusted yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and QBR were all the lowest of his five-year career. Through it all, though, Baldwin was reliable (75.0% catch rate) and efficient (9.02 yards per target, 10th among wideouts with 100+ targets), and claimed a studly 30% of Seahawk touchdown passes. If the offense remains static, then things look solid for Baldwin. But if it upticks, he could threaten his awesome 2015 numbers across the board.

His competition for targets is uninspiring. The Seahawks don’t have much of a receiving corps to speak of. Tyler Lockett is promising but saw his ascent stall mightily in 2016, while Jermaine Kearse is squarely among the league’s least efficient wideouts. Reserves Paul Richardson Jr and Tanner McEvoy are rarely utilized when the whole gang is healthy, and third-round rookie Amara Darboh was the team’s only addition of note. Under typical circumstances, the Seattle passing game is largely dedicated to Baldwin and tight end Jimmy Graham, and at this point there’s no real reason to expect that to change.

Cons

He’s not an enticing talent. Baldwin was an undrafted add for the Seahawks back in 2011. He wasn’t invited to the combine, and at his pro day he ran and jumped underwhelmingly for a smaller receiver. Upon entering the league, he spent 3 years as a complementary possession guy before establishing himself. Simply put, his profile and pedigree don’t impress fantasy owners with an eye on upside, and it’s easy to assume he’s been overachieving. If the Seahawks’ moderately talented youngsters take a step forward in 2017, Baldwin won’t see the dominant volume he needs to produce WR1 numbers.

Tyler Lockett – and a few other bodies – still loom. Is Lockett the face of Seattle’s passing-game future, or merely a complementary body? It’s probably too early to say. He slipped in volume in his second year, losing two games to injury and never overtaking Jermaine Kearse in the pecking order. But he represents almost all of the young, untapped talent on the depth chart, and he’s been undeniably efficient through 31 NFL games (playoffs included). He may not boast a true No. 1 wideout’s profile, but he could easily chip away at Baldwin and Graham’s target dominance with a modest rebound.

The Seahawks may attempt to tilt the offense back toward the run in 2017. This may well not be the case – it seems coordinator Darrell Bevell has settled into a solid groove of balanced offense. But the team’s investment in Eddie Lacy could be a sign they’re looking to return to their run-dominated roots. If that’s the case, and Russell Wilson slips back into the neighborhood of 475-500 attempts, Baldwin will be hard-pressed to threaten 90 catches again.

As a Player

As I discussed above, Baldwin is not a guy we would term a “phenom” or an “upside play.” Undrafted and uninvited to his combine, Baldwin entered the league small (5’10” and 189 pounds) and seemingly destined for the practice squad. But he latched on tightly as a rookie, stepping in for banged-up and ineffective regulars and catching 51 balls as a rookie. And from an efficiency standpoint, he’s been fantastic since then. Dating back to 2012, Russell Wilson has posted a studly 9.6 adjusted yards per attempt when throwing to Baldwin. Only Golden Tate and Tyler Lockett have provided more efficiency with Wilson over that span, and neither of those two has come close to Baldwin’s sample size of 448 targets.

So, Baldwin isn’t Randy Moss, some freak of nature with ungodly natural playmaking skills. Luckily for him (and his owners), he’s spent these last six years developing impressive route-running savvy and two of the most dependable hands in the business. As a result, he’s outlasted all of the sexy names the Seahawks have added to the roster over that span. Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin flamed out quickly as high-upside dice rolls, and high-drafted youngsters Lockett and Paul Richardson Jr are still finding their places in the offense. Each of these guys have been expected to usurp Baldwin’s reliable every-down role at one point or another, yet none could even approach the efficiency – or the usage – he’s brought to the table. Not even former all-world tight end Jimmy Graham, healthy and deployed as the unquestioned starter, has been able to wrest control of the passing game from Baldwin.

Opportunity & Usage

Here’s a quick breakdown of Baldwin’s last two seasons, each split into halves, to give us a picture of his usage and productivity:

baldwin

Obviously, his “set the world on fire” dominance of late 2015 is unlikely to be repeated. Over those final 8 games, Baldwin recorded the third-most touchdown catches (12) over a second half in NFL history. All in all, if we extrapolate that 8-game stretch into 16, we would come up with a receiving line of 94 receptions, 1,448 yards, and 24 touchdowns. For many reasons, of course, we have to throw out a chunk of that goodwill. Not only was Baldwin working in an offense that lacked Jimmy Graham, he also scored touchdowns at a dizzying rate that he’s never approached over any other stretch. As a result, Baldwin will never project to repeat that kind of performance. That said, it wasn’t an entirely fluky stretch of time. The touchdown explosion came despite the Seahawks throwing the ball at a rate well below the league average and less in the red zone than they typically do, and Baldwin’s target shares weren’t out of whack compared to the rest of this study. We can say Baldwin “got lucky” over those eight games all we want to, but the numbers tell us it wasn’t based on artificial volume or wonky red zone opportunities.

All told, it’s comforting to note that he’s consistently dominated the wide receivers’ share of team targets over the past two years, and that the Seahawks don’t boast much of a cupboard for depth. Even if we project a modest step forward for Tyler Lockett and boost the target outlook for youngsters Paul Richardson Jr and Amara Darboh, Baldwin’s role as the clear-cut No. 1 receiver looks extremely safe.

Ultimately, Baldwin’s target share will almost certainly wind up pinned to the Seahawks’ 2017 usage of their backs and tight ends. And that looks fairly promising for Baldwin. This is not an offense that throws to its backs with much volume – over the past 2 years, only 16.0% of team attempts went to the backfield, easily one of the league’s lowest rates. That may reverse a bit if C.J. Prosise gets and remains healthy for 2017, but not by much. Prosise drew 20 targets over his 6 rookie appearances, a solid number but nowhere close to suggesting some offensive shift. And if Prosise does go down again – a fair proposal, considering his history – the backfield volume would likely dry up majorly. Eddie Lacy has traditionally been a ho-hum receiver, and backup Thomas Rawls seems almost allergic to receptions.

As for Jimmy Graham, he remained (relatively) healthy throughout last season, but didn’t see near the usage he’d drawn over the first half of 2016, falling from 23.5% of team targets to a solid but far-from dominant 16.8%. Barring an outright eruption in his age-31 season, Graham will likely settle in near last year’s mark – I have him projected optimistically at 17.4% – and leave gobs of opportunity on the table for the wideouts. And, as we’ve seen borne out above, a fairly dominant chunk of that (roughly 40%) should remain earmarked for Baldwin. As a result, I feel quite warm and fuzzy about his quest for another 120-target season.

Productivity

What saves Baldwin’s value as a borderline WR1 target is the factor we discussed a moment ago: his reliability. Baldwin’s outstanding catch rate (72.4% over the past 4 years) has allowed him to turn strong-not-dominant volume into fantastic PPR productivity. Furthermore, as one of the league’s premier red zone producers, he’s been able to maximize his touchdown opportunity. Over the past 2 seasons, among 48 wideouts to draw 20+ targets from the red zone, only 8 have boasted a stronger catch rate, and just 2 (Allen Robinson and Donte Moncrief) have scored more touchdowns per target.

Skeptics can easily poke holes in these numbers. Baldwin is small for a No. 1 wideout, which leads many to assume he’s been overachieving wildly in terms of usage and red zone play and will come back to earth at any moment. But his target and catch rates aren’t weird at all – Baldwin operates mainly out of the slot, and smaller, quicker, savvier slot targets routinely post strong volume stats. And in the red zone, where touchdown rates often tell the difference between fantasy WR1/2s and WR2/3s, we have plenty of reason to stay optimistic. Over the past 10-15 years we’ve seen strong red zone rates and/or production from similarly smallish targets like Marvin Harrison, Steve Smith, Hines Ward, Greg Jennings, Derrick Mason, Santana Moss, and a host of others. We don’t want to base our expectations on anecdotal outliers, sure, but we also don’t want to rule out back-to-back seasons of outstanding play based on our own discrimination of certain profiles.

All in all, these measures give Baldwin a floor that few receivers in his peer group can boast. The efficiency marks of guys like Dez Bryant, Amari Cooper, and Sammy Watkins have been all over the map, and we can’t project with much confidence that they’ll turn high target counts into high productivity. We can gush over their perceived upsides, but we can’t put those expectations on paper with a clear conscience. But we can feel good about projecting Baldwin to again threaten 90 receptions, which speaks worlds of his floor if not his ceiling.

(And, of course, let us not proceed as if Baldwin is devoid of upside. Any receiver with his strong volume – as well as his red zone talents and usage – has to be viewed as a threat to erupt into a 10-touchdown season. He’s done it before, after all.)

Conclusion

Baldwin is often written off as an overachiever, a complementary piece of a relatively ho-hum offense, and one bound to regress soon. It may have been somewhat fair to label him as such after his wild 2015 eruption, but 2016 should put many of those concerns to bed. He didn’t match those bizarre yardage and touchdown rates from 2015, but his usage remained static and he continued to maximize his opportunity by turning solid red zone volume into strong touchdown production.

No, his individual profile isn’t as sexy as that of Julio Jones or Mike Evans. But that could be a good thing for our purposes. While his fanfare has been relatively light, his production has been spot-on for a low-end fantasy WR1, despite not being drafted as such. At the moment he’s being targeted just outside of WR1 territory, and behind several “upside plays” with shakier 2017 outlooks. I suspect that his ADP will continue to dip modestly as training camp and preseason reports start offering gushing praise of dicier guys like Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson – both of whom hold similar upside to Baldwin’s but much lower floors. Based upon his 2015 and 2016 productivity and the Seahawks’ refusal to add notable talent to their receiving corps, Baldwin is as strong a low-end WR1 pick as one can make near the Round 2/3 turn. I can certainly see the case for targeting upside at other positions at his expense – a gamble on a workhorse back a la Jay Ajayi or Jordan Howard, for example – but to me Baldwin boasts a stronger case in that spot than most of his wideout peers.

Projections

 GPRecRecYdRecTDRushRushYdRushTD
Justin Howe 16 85 1060 7 3 18 0
David Dodds 16 85 1088 8 1 6 0
Maurile Tremblay 16 85 1043 6 3 17 0
Bob Henry 16 88 1070 8 2 10 0
Jason Wood 16 86 1100 8 0 0 0

Other Viewpoints

Our Jeff Haseley is just about as smitten with Baldwin’s consistency – if not his overall upside – as I am:

“He’s a set-it-and-forget-it player and he has established an excellent rapport with Russell Wilson. He may not get 8-10 catches in a game that often, but he makes good on his opportunities and is a consistent threat every week.”

In April, the great Rich Hribar discussed the fantasy outlook for the second tier of wideout options. And he also noted the discrepancy between Baldwin and the sexier options that get more ADP love:

“[DeAndre] Hopkins is WR11 off the board early. [Allen Robinson] WR12. Aggressive for both… Both are ahead of Doug Baldwin, who has shown an equally high ceiling the past two years with a better floor (and QB).”

RotoViz’s Jacob Rickrode also laughs down the idea that Baldwin is small and boring to own:

Antonio Brown 5'10" 181lbs. Doug Baldwin 5'10" 192lbs. He's not undersized. Now has back to back Top 10 yrs… [T.Y.] Hilton is 5'10" 183lbs and just led the league in receiving yards. With production, being "undersized" is irrelevant. Plenty of "undersized" WRs like Baldwin are dominating the league.”