Last year, a much-improved defense, aggressive rushing attack and a breakout season by receiver Dwayne Bowe brought the Kansas City Chiefs the AFC West division title and a return to relevancy in the NFL. After a three-year stint among the worst teams in the league, the Chiefs ceased being an assumed win on other teams' schedules and became a viable threat on Sunday afternoons.
Kansas City's first playoff berth in four years didn't just come from excellent on-field play and inspired coaching, though. The Chiefs capitalized on a soft schedule which featured only two playoff teams and seven games against the six worst teams in the league.
They have no such luxury this year, facing off against six of the seven other playoff teams from last year. Kansas City needed major roster upgrades to keep up.
No position needed an injection of talent like the wide receiver position. Outside of Bowe and his on-field awakening, the Chiefs' wideouts failed to produce a viable threat, subjecting Bowe to double-teams and minimizing Kansas City's ability to stretch the field.
Thus enters Jonathan Baldwin. Drafted 26th overall, Baldwin brings immense talent to Kansas City, and will pair nicely with Bowe for one of the best receiver tandems in the league.
But not this year.
Not to be a Negative Nancy, but receivers face an uphill battle when it come to producing as a rookie. There are notable exceptions: Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin and Marques Colston among them.
The key word in that statement is "exception." Not usual; abnormal. Among the top 100 draft picks from 2010, Dez Bryant led the 13 wide receivers selected with 561 yards and six touchdowns. Tampa's Mike Williams (drafted 101st) led all rookies with 964 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Those other 12 didn't fare so well. Bryant's fellow first-round receiver Demaryius Thomas didn't even break 300 yards; second-rounder Golden Tate barely broke 200.
So the odds aren't in favor of a major impact from Baldwin this year. But odds are meant to be overcome like rules are made to be broken; Bowe put up 995 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie.
However, Bowe had the benefit of offseason training activities, rookie minicamps and a full training camp schedule to prepare him for the adjustment from college to professional football. Prolonged CBA negotiations between the NFL and the Players' Association forced Baldwin to rely on his own motivation to condition for the rigors of a 16-game season.
That doesn't bode well for his rookie year. At the University of Pittsburgh, Baldwin’s rep said he had all the tools but little motivation. Baldwin should have dominated opponents in the less-competitive Big East. Instead, he relied on his size and innate skill to make plays. Route running on the other hand, more a trained skill than talent, is Baldwin's weakest area.
Todd Haley will coach that out of him. With a growing reputation for doing to receivers what Norv Turner has done for quarterbacks, Haley will push Baldwin to be more than just another first-round disappointment. But it will take time, and that’s one thing they haven’t had.
To make matters worse, Baldwin missed some practice time with injuries—nothing serious, but with so little time in camp it's crucial to be on the field at every opportunity.
And the receiver position has quickly become a strength in Kansas City. Arizona transplants Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban both play for the Chiefs now; Breaston will likely secure the No. 2 wideout position, while Urban returned strong following a year recovering from a preseason injury.
Keary Colbert looks strong in camp fighting for an NFL comeback. Verran Tucker and Jeremy Horne have flashed potential; journeyman Terrance Copper is a reliable special teams player. On paper, Baldwin almost doesn't have a spot on the roster guaranteed, let alone a lock on the starting position.
Ultimately, though, none of this matters. It comes down to what Baldwin wants, and how badly. If he comes out flat, it’s his own fault.
If he excels, then that’s on Baldwin too. He wouldn’t be the first to beat the odds, and won’t be the last.
Here's hoping he's the latest.