Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson misses Doug Baldwin. How will the Seahawks proceed without his ‘fire’?

Russell Wilson will look at his slot receiver on the inside flank of the formation. And he’ll get jolted.

He’ll look to his left front in the locker room, past where the shuffleboard table is during the season, about 30 feet away to the left, corner locker. And the quarterback will get jolted again.

Before and when Wilson and the Seahawks get back on the field Thursday for the third of 10 practices called “organized team activities,” they will be missing Doug Baldwin.

“I think about who he is and what he’s meant to this organization, what he’s meant to undrafted free agents as well, and the level that he’s played at, the execution that he’s played at, the big-time plays, there’s nobody liked Doug Baldwin,” Wilson said this week of his retiring wide receiver.

These are the first practices in seven years Wilson hasn’t had Baldwin to throw to. To learn from. To refine a connection and unspoken understanding they shared on the field that—especially on third downs and with games and championships on the line—was one of the NFL’s best from 2012 until January.

Their connection was one of the most productive Seahawks’ franchise history from 2012 until January.

And Baldwin’s drive? It’s already obvious: it’s irreplaceable.

“He had this fire that you didn’t see in anybody else, almost in a way,” Wilson said. “And I think that in terms of his passion, his love for the game, his love for just competing, his love for making plays, I mean, when the game’s on the line, he’s going to make a play, you know.

“And so, you’re going to miss that, for sure. Going to miss his leadership.

“I’m going to miss his work ethic.”

Baldwin made himself in the NFL. He drove himself into the second-best wide receiver in Seahawks history, after Hall of Famer Steve Largent.

Baldwin went from an angry, undrafted rookie in 2010 out of Stanford to a Super Bowl champion and $46 million man who co-led the NFL with 14 touchdown catches in his and Wilson’s wondrous 2015. Baldwin’s 94 catches a year later tied Bobby Engram’s franchise record.

Baldwin was a preeminent example of coach Pete Carroll cultivating young players with chips on their shoulder into Seahawks champions.

Then this month, Seattle waived him with an injured/failed-physical designation. That was after Baldwin, 30, had offseason surgeries on his knees, shoulder and, last month, abdomen, for a sports hernia. He told Carroll and general manager John Schneider before April’s draft that he was seriously considering retiring.

The team terminated his contract that had two years and $19.5 million remaining on it so he can retire and be entitled to $1.2 million in injury relief, per the NFL collective bargaining agreement with its players.

Two weeks ago, Baldwin wrote a remarkable letter to himself on his Twitter feed.

Then he posted a peace emoji and a Game of Thrones clip with the words “My watch has ended,” to retire his way.

What does not having Baldwin at these OTAs, at training camp that begins in late July, in their offense and locker room for 2019 and beyond mean for these Seahawks?

“It means a tremendous amount for us,” Carroll said. “He’s been an integral part of everything we’ve ever been about since I’ve been here, it seems.

“But not just he’s a good player. He’s been tremendous competitor in the program and he’s been a leader and he’s demonstrated everything that you’re supposed to demonstrate as a ball player in terms of toughness and grit and care and love and passion and all of that...

“He has a–and should for everybody that loves the Seahawks–should always have a very special place in my heart for the way he gave it up. And coming from a free agent and having the best free-agent year in the history of the league, whatever those numbers were way back when in his rookie season and on. And he steadily improved throughout his career and just became a big factor. Was always somewhat of an underrated guy kind of, not as exposed maybe as other players. But the guys in the game know, they know who he is and what he’s all about.

“And we certainly do around here.”

The habit of receivers running all the way to the goal line after every catch in every Seahawks practice, even receptions for just 5 yards in the middle of the field? Baldwin started that.

“He’s a guy who would catch a slant route and run to the house every time at practice. He would practice and play hurt, where other guys would be sitting now,” Wilson said.

“He knew the game. He studied the game. Nobody worked harder than he did.”

Knowing Baldwin was about to retire, the Seahawks drafted three of wide receivers last month. It was the most they’d selected in 38 years. Those young pass catchers already miss Baldwin in the locker room, and they don’t really know it.

DK Metcalf, Gary Jennings and John Ursua weren’t around when Baldwin would teach Seattle’s receivers the finer points of route running, of scouting NFL defensive backs, of getting off the line of scrimmage and open immediately after the snap. Of growing as a person, from a 21-, 22-year-old kid into a man in this league.

Baldwin taught Wilson, too.

With safety and soul Kam Chancellor also retired, there is nobody like that at these Seahawks OTAs. Not even close.

“He also was a great coach on the field,” Wilson said of Baldwin. “He really coached the other players, other wide outs and also me, too, you know.

“So I think about who he is and what he’s meant to this organization, what he’s meant to undrafted free agents as well, and the level that he’s played at, the execution that he’s played at, the big time plays, there’s nobody like Doug Baldwin.”

How are the Seahawks going about replacing Baldwin, starting with these 10 OTA practices over the next three weeks and continuing in the veteran minicamp June 11-13 then training camp six weeks later?

“I don’t think we replace Doug,” Carroll said. “I think Doug was Doug. And we won’t ever replace him, in particular.

“Somebody else will do something a little bit differently and will make their own spot for him.”

That foremost somebody is Tyler Lockett.

Baldwin’s former understudy is now Wilson’s main target. Lockett is coming off a new, second contract worth $31.8 million then the best season of his career in 2018. He is going to be first up at slot receiver when Seattle goes to three wide receivers.

Carroll said he has already seen Lockett becoming more vocal and more of a leader to all the younger receivers. It’s a role the 26-year-old has never had, or had to have, in the NFL.

Metcalf, the second-round pick Seattle traded up to get last month, has the speed, size and potential to be the starting “X” receiver on the line opposite the tight end from game one. The Seahawks see Jennings as another potential home-run threat to maximize Wilson’s accuracy on deep passes. But they haven’t seen the rookie draft pick from West Virginia on their field yet because of a strained hamstring.

Ursua, the seventh-round pick, led major college football with 16 touchdown catches last season as the slot receiver for Hawaii. He is Baldwin and Lockett-like in size, and smaller, at 5 feet 9 and 182 pounds. Ursua has practiced this week at OTAs after missing rookie minicamp early this month with a hamstring injury.

Carroll has said the Seahawks want David Moore to be more consistent and emerge. Their seventh-round pick in 2017 from small-school East Central in Oklahoma was emerging last season with four touchdowns in three games in October. Then he mostly disappeared in November and December.

“We are really counting on him to take another step here,” Carroll said.

Unsolicited, Carroll mentioned Amara Darboh.

Remember him? Seattle’s third-round pick from Michigan in 2017, a former ophan in warring Sierra Leone, had leg and clavicle injuries keep him off the field almost all of August last summer. The team waived him at the end of last preseason.

New England claimed Darboh off waivers, but two days later in September the Patriots released him after he failed their physical examination. He reverted back to Seattle and went on the Seahawks’ injured-reserve list for all of the 2018 season.

Now, he’s got a second chance with this team. It may need to come via special teams, a place he’s yet to contribute for Seattle. Tuesday, Darboh was doing this special-team drill in OTAs.

“Darboh looks great. Back into the fold now,” Carroll said. “So he goes right back into the competition of it.”

They are all competing, to be the guys at wide receiver behind Lockett.

But none of them will compete like Baldwin did. Two formal offseason practices without him, these Seahawks are already realizing that.

“He’s going to be remembered forever here,” Wilson said, “and I think across the National Football League for that.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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