- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Baltimore Ravens are looking for big playmakers at receiver. The Cincinnati Bengals are going through a youth movement at the position, and the Cleveland Browns need legitimate threats for quarterback Colt McCoy any way they can get them.
Could former University of Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin be the answer?
While first-round locks A.J. Green and Julio Jones get most of the pre-draft hype, Baldwin joins an athletic group of receiving prospects that includes Kentucky's Randall Cobb and Maryland's Torrey Smith. Each of the aforementioned trio is vying to be the next receiver off the board behind Green and Jones.
Baldwin is 6-foot-4, weighs 224 pounds, jumped 42 inches at the combine and can run. He has drawn comparisons to fellow Pittsburgh alum Larry Fitzgerald, whom Baldwin has worked with leading up to the draft.
Could the Ravens, Bengals or Browns use a Fitzgerald-type of playmaker on offense? Absolutely. All three division teams and the neighboring Steelers attended Baldwin's pro day at the University of Pittsburgh last month.
Baldwin caught 110 passes for 1,933 yards and 13 touchdowns during his final two seasons with the Panthers. Baldwin's abilities combined with playing a position of need make him a potential candidate for the AFC North in this month's draft.
Baldwin grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., a hotbed for football talent. He's the latest prospect to come out of a city that was also once home to Darrelle Revis, Ty Law and Sean Gilbert. According to Baldwin, regularly seeing and hearing about those players growing up provided motivation to work harder.
In addition to working with Fitzgerald, Baldwin also has used his hometown connections to get plenty of one-on-one time with Revis, the Jets' Pro Bowl cornerback.
"He's helped me a lot. He pushed me hard," Baldwin said of Revis. "It's just a lot of things I learned from him, such as different ways to beat press coverage. He's the best press corner in the NFL, I feel. He also told me things that he knows when a guy runs a certain route, because he does this or he does that, so I would know not to do that against defensive backs. ... It just makes it a lot better when you have the best defensive back in the National Football League giving you advice."
In the latest mock draft from ESPN's Todd McShay, Baldwin is the fourth receiver taken in the middle of the second round, behind Green, Jones and Cobb. Here is a summary of Scouts Inc.'s pre-draft report on Baldwin:
"Elite [ball skills]. Displays natural and strong hands and catches the ball away from his frame. Body control is excellent and can make tough catch outside of frame look easy. At his best catching the ball up high where he can use his long arms and ability to elevate. Tracks the deep ball effortlessly and will cause matchup problems in one-on-one jump ball situations. Flashes ability to pull in acrobatic one-handed catch."
According to Kevin Weidl of Scouts Inc., Baldwin must continue working on his route-running at the pro level. But Baldwin's physical tools are impressive.
"There's no one like him, I would say outside of A.J. Green, who tracks the deep ball better than him," Weidl said. "Baldwin and Green are at another level in this class in terms of going down the field, tracking, adjusting and playing the ball. He can be a mismatch down the field."
Baldwin honed much of his big-play ability from playing basketball since the fourth grade. He had early aspirations of playing in the NBA and was a very good hoops prospect in high school. In fact, Baldwin played in all-star games against current pro players such as Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, Memphis guard O.J. Mayo and San Antonio Spurs forward Dejuan Blair.
"I used to do some pretty sick dunks when I played," Baldwin said.
Baldwin started playing football in the ninth grade, which is when his focus began to shift. But you can still see his basketball skills translate to the gridiron. Baldwin often grabs the ball over defenders at its highest point, a coveted skill in the NFL. Now Baldwin is trying to prove through workouts and interviews that he can be a slam-dunk prospect.
"The process is very unique and I'm enjoying it," Baldwin said. "I'm going to different visits to talk to different guys and different coaching staffs to let them know me and understand me better."
Baldwin doesn't have any elaborate draft plans. He will stay home in Aliquippa with his family and wait for his name to be called.
Whether an AFC North team turns in a card with Baldwin's name on it remains to be seen. But it appears the Ravens, Browns and Bengals could use a player such as Baldwin.