No team in the NFL thought Doug Baldwin would quickly emerge as one of the most productive young wide receivers in the league.
We know this because the 32 NFL teams drafted 28 wide receivers in 2011, but not Baldwin.
NFC West teams drafted five of them, but not Baldwin.
Austin Pettis (third round, St. Louis), Kris Durham (fourth round, Seattle), Greg Salas (fourth round, St. Louis), Ronald Johnson (sixth round, San Francisco) and DeMarco Sampson (seventh round, Arizona) have combined for 22 receptions, 195 yards and no touchdowns.
Baldwin vs. NFC West Rookie Picks
Baldwin, signed as an undrafted free agent from Stanford, has 20 catches for 330 yards and two scores even though he played sparingly in the season opener.
How surprising is Baldwin's production? His college coach, Jim Harbaugh, surely did not see it coming. Harbaugh's 49ers were seeking a slot receiver in the draft. They went with Johnson in the sixth round partially because the 49ers' receivers coach, John Morton, coached Johnson at USC. There was no shame in the selection; the draft guides I saw rated Johnson over Baldwin.
Johnson failed to earn a roster spot. Baldwin is leading Seattle in targets, receptions and receiving yards. He caught eight passes for 136 yards and a touchdown during the Seahawks' 36-25 victory over the New York Giants in Week 5. His 55-yard touchdown reception against the 49ers in Week 1 helped Seattle erase most of a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter.
Among Seattle rookies, only Joey Galloway, with 349 yards in 1995, has gained more receiving yards than Baldwin through five games, according to ESPN Stats & Information (Hall of Famer Steve Largent had been second with 313 yards through five games in 1976).
Baldwin was initially reluctant to bite when I asked him how much motivation he gets from knowing his own college coach could have drafted him or signed him, but did not.
"There is definitely motivation that comes out of that," Baldwin said. "Obviously, I went undrafted, so there is motivation from that as a whole, but definitely motivation."
Baldwin's college career was up and down. He became disillusioned with his diminished role as a junior, as the Pensacola News recounted in a story available via PDF.
"He is one of the most mentally strong people I have ever met," said 49ers tight end Konrad Reuland, a rookie who played with Baldwin at Stanford and lived with him for a time. "He had his ups and downs at Stanford. He always battled back from any kind of injury or setback that he had. He’s just mentally tough. He went through a year where he didn’t play very much and came back the next year and was our best receiver."
Baldwin appears ideally suited for the slot. The Seahawks, despite having already had their bye week, rank eighth in the league with 203 plays featuring at least three wide receivers. Baldwin's presence helps account for some of that.
The Seahawks want him on the field and value what he offers from the slot in particular. So far, Baldwin has nine receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown from the left slot, seven receptions for 114 yards from the right slot and four receptions for 91 yards when lining up outside, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"In terms of physical ability, he is one of the quickest guys I have ever seen in and out of his breaks," Reuland said. "He’s got those cat-like reflexes and just explodes in and out of his breaks."
Baldwin has also proved he can bounce back from big hits, whether from opposing defensive backs -- one such hit drew a $15,000 fine -- or from the NFL teams that decided he wasn't worth drafting.