Second-year development critical to Jonathan Baldwin and Chiefs offense

Posted May 30, 2012

Baldwin worked with QB Matt Cassel during just four games in 2011

Offensively, Jonathan Baldwin has cornered the market for highlight-reel receptions during the first two weeks of Chiefs Organized Team Activities (OTAs).

There was the opening session last week when Baldwin made a diving catch over his outside shoulder deep down the left sideline. Two days later, he hauled in a leaping grab in traffic.

This week, Baldwin’s blatant disrespect for gravity turned into a one-handed touchdown catch that his set teammates and the media members covering practice abuzz.

“He’s competing, he’s getting better each and every day and it’s been fun to work with him so far,” QB Matt Cassel said of the second-year wide receiver following Tuesday’s practice.

Baldwin’s second-season development is one of the most important and intriguing storylines of the Chiefs offseason.

With Dwayne Bowe opting to stay away from OTAs while his contract situation remains unresolved, Baldwin is getting plenty of opportunities to run with the first-team offense as the No. 1 receiving option.

Cassel has looked to Baldwin numerous times since OTAs began on May 21st and the pair seems to be developing an on-field rapport that failed to materialize last season.

The two played together in just four games last year between Baldwin’s preseason thumb injury causing him to miss the first five games of the season and Cassel’s season-ending hand injury keeping him out of the final seven games of the year.

Opportunities to work with one another were few and far between. Add in Baldwin missing close to half of the 2011 preseason, and the NFL Lockout eliminating last year’s offseason program in its entirety, and it’s as if he and Cassel are just now beginning their on-field relationship.

There was the Monday Night Football game against San Diego on Halloween night where Baldwin saw his first full-fledged playing time and hauled in his first career touchdown catch. The 39-yarder came off a double-move and ended with Baldwin falling into the end zone with his hands and the football extended high above his body.

He’d finish that game with a season-high five receptions for 82 yards.

There was also the catch that wasn’t a catch when Baldwin reached around the back of face-guarding Broncos safety Brian Dawkins to haul in a 49-yard circus grab. The play would ultimately be wiped away thanks to an illegal formation penalty offsetting Dawkins’ defensive pass interference flag.

But outside of those two moments, Baldwin’s rookie impact was minimal and his on-field connection with Cassel nearly non-existent.

He caught just 21 passes for 254 yards and a TD and barely logged 400 total snaps as a rookie. Outside of that 39-yard TD reception against the Chargers, Baldwin reeled in just one other catch of at least 20 yards.

“I know last year that he was a rookie and he was young, but you can definitely tell that he’s made some strides,” said CB Stanford Routt, who was the victim of Tuesday’s one-handed touchdown catch and played against Baldwin as a member of the Raiders last season.

Fellow wide receiver Steve Breaston has made similar claims this offseason as well.

With no pads or live contact, overreaction runs rampant this time of year. But it’s still impossible to ignore the progress Baldwin has shown during these opening offseason practices.

The highlight-reel catches are generating the buzz, but Baldwin seems to be improving his intermediate routes as well. He converted an important third-down catch during the team portion of Tuesday’s practice and is not dropping the increased looks as they come in his direction.

Showing signs of maturity is also important for Baldwin following an inconsistent first season both on and off the field.

Thus far, Baldwin is saying the right things as well.

“Well, they were both pretty good catches, but like I said, you’ve got to move on now and get ready for the next day,” was Baldwin’s answer when asked to compare last year’s catch on Dawkins with Tuesday’s catch against Routt.

“You just have to continue to build off every day, so it’s a stepping stone. I just need to keep on building and keep improving every day.”

The freakish athletic talent is there. From his days at the University of Pittsburgh to the flashes he showed as a rookie, there’s never been any doubt that Baldwin has the rare athletic makeup to one day develop into a prominent NFL receiver.

But it takes more than freakish athletic ability to succeed at this level of football.

There is still a long way to go and a plenty of hard work ahead, but Baldwin is showing the beginning stages of making that ever-important second-year jump.

If he can leap, so will the Chiefs’ passing game.

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