The current make-up of the Kansas City Chiefs has a greater offensive potential than any roster previously constructed under Scott Pioli's watch. Since 2009, Pioli has slowly and steadily built a roster with impact players on both sides of the ball, extending the players he was given while bolstering with new additions every year. Now the team seems healthy, well-coached and ready to make an impact as a sleeper in the AFC West dominated by quarterback talk of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
The offensive world revolves around Jamaal Charles here when he's healthy, as it should, so Brian Daboll will learn that first and foremost. There are also several other playmakers as well. Dwayne Bowe is the best wideout in Chiefs history whether anyone else will admit that or not. Tony Moeaki is an all-around threat at tight end.
Kevin Boss is a solid pass catcher as another tight end option. Steve Breaston is a great third receiver and steady veteran presence. Let's not forget the addition of Peyton Hillis in the offseason who hopes to return to the form that garnered over 1,600 yards from scrimmage in 2010 under Daboll's oversight in Cleveland. That's not to mention exciting rookies like Devon Wylie and Cyrus Gray or the versatility that Dexter McCluster offers.
With so many weapons, it might not seem like there's room for more, but Jon Baldwin has the size, athletic ability and promise to stand out despite the options all around him. As the Chiefs first round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the investment was high so the team is going to do everything they can to help him succeed.
A Frustrating Rookie Season
Expectations were high for him to come in and team with Bowe for a wideout tandem that could rival the best in the league in his rookie season. Alas, that was not to be. Instead, the NFL lockout removed any possibility of Baldwin slowly adjusting to the pro game. Suddenly there were no OTAs and Baldwin wasn't allowed to talk to his coaches or see a playbook. There was a hurried version of training camp made even weirder by Todd Haley's odd approach to getting his players ready for the home opener against the Buffalo Bills -- a plan that included never allowed his starters to get into game shape.
It wasn't long until the rookie receiver out of Pittsburgh got into a quarrel with veteran running back and team leader Thomas Jones. Few details have ever been made public about what caused the incident, as it should be, but the end result was a thumb injury that cost the receiver much of the preseason and the first five games of the regular season as well. The sum total for the impact rookie? Eleven games. Three starts. 21 catches for 254 yards and 1 touchdown.
In other words, Leonard Pope had only 7 yards less than Baldwin.
Breakout Potential In NFL History
Enter this offseason. Baldwin is being discussed as a breakout candidate for both fantasy football and the real thing for the Chiefs this year. As Dwayne Bowe has held out, Baldwin has made one mesmerizing catch after another -- albeit without pads -- in both OTAs and training camp. This comes after an offseason where the receiver has already impressed with his workout regimen that included a self-recorded run in the middle of the night.
With a full offseason, increased practice time and a new focus, Jon Baldwin is definitely ready to become a bigger part of the offense. But what exactly does it mean for Baldwin to break out?
In NFL history, 54 players have been taken as a first round draft choice only to earn less than 300 yards in their rookie season. Some of those stat lines quickly tell the tale of famous draft busts while other NFL greats started out slowly.
There's no denying the Chargers would love to have that Craig Brown pick back. The 49ers would say the same about Rashaun Woods and the Lions on Charles Rogers. The Jags wasted two on R. Jay Soward and Reggie Williams. Even the Chiefs have been burned with first round choice Anthony Hancock as the No. 11 overall selection in the 1982 NFL Draft. After 73 career receptions, the receiver/returner was out of the NFL.
Yet for every bust, there's a ray of hope for what Jon Baldwin could become. Lynn Swann started with less productive rookie season than Baldwin. Add Eric Moulds, Irving Fryar, Bill Brooks, Herman Moore, Johnnie Morton, Santana Moss, Ike Hilliard and Desmond Howard to that list as well. Every one of those players went on to fine NFL careers, even a Hall of Fame one in Swann's case, with a lackluster rookie season on their résumés.
So where should fans place their expectations for Baldwin? Is he a future Hall of Famer? Is he going to become a steady performer? Will he fall flat? It's impossible to tell at this point but Baldwin's current work ethic and dazzling displays after a full offseason help to plot a probable course. Let's look at a few examples in recent history:
Plaxico Burress was selected No. 8 overall and shares a similar build to Baldwin, an ideal end zone receiver designed to create mismatches in the secondary. In his first season with the Steelers in 2003, Burress had only 22 catches for 273 yards and 0 touchdowns. The next season, Burress had 66 catches for 1,008 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Herman Moore, the Lions' great receiver of the '90s, had 11 catches for 135 yards in his rookie season in '91. The next year, Baldwin caught 51 passes for 966 yards and 4 touchdowns. If you're too young to remember Moore, Moore led the NFL in receptions in '95 and '97 and was a fixture for the Detroit offense for a decade with 9,174 career receiving yards despite his horrible rookie season.
Of course there are cautionary tales as well. Reggie Williams of the Jags and Michael Jenkins of the Falcons are similarly built receivers to Baldwin taken this last decade who failed to live up to their big play potential. It's possible that Baldwin takes a similar path. Williams didn't totally flame out but became the very definition of mediocre before leaving the NFL in 2008.
In short, Baldwin is in control of his own career path at this point. The Chiefs are committed to featuring him given the investment and the signs are in place that the team is willing to move on from Dwayne Bowe after 2012. Perhaps not, but Baldwin could find himself as the top receiving option by his third season in the NFL. This is going to be a pivotal year for Baldwin, perhaps a breakout year, and a major increase in his stats should be expected.
Given the commitment on both sides -- Baldwin's determination and focus this offseason and the team's commitment to developing him -- it's likely that Baldwin's story will be one of great success. A 2012 season where Baldwin catches 55 passes for 800 yards and 7 touchdowns is probably a safe bet with the potential for a bit more.