Welcoming Back the Seahawks’ Third-Down Weapon

On a day where the Seattle Seahawks could never get their run going in Carolina — at least not until the final clock-killing drive — third downs loomed larger than usual. And nobody was better at converting with possession on the line than slot receiver Doug Baldwin. Quarterback Russell Wilson looked Baldwin’s direction four times on Sunday and came up with completions and first downs all four, including a tiptoe catch along the sideline on a ball Wilson appeared to be throwing away.

Not only was Baldwin the Seahawks’ best option on third down — Wilson completed just two other third-down throws for first downs, one apiece to starting wideouts Sidney Rice and Golden Tate — his four catches good for first downs were tied for fourth in the NFL this weekend.

Such third-down heroics are nothing new for Baldwin. As a rookie in 2011, playing primarily with Tarvaris Jackson, the undrafted Baldwin was one of the league’s most productive players on third down, catching 25 passes (tied for seventh in the NFL) for 23 first downs (fourth). Here’s how Baldwin compared to the NFL’s other third down leaders:

Player             T    C   FD    C%     FD%   FD/C   Y/T
Roddy White       52   35   29   .673   .558   .829   8.4
Nate Washington   45   29   20   .644   .444   .690   8.0
Antonio Brown     44   28   25   .636   .568   .893   9.9
Victor Cruz       39   27   22   .692   .564   .815  17.9
Wes Welker        44   26   24   .591   .545   .923   7.3
Davone Bess       42   26   13   .619   .310   .500   5.9
Doug Baldwin      42   25   23   .595   .548   .920   9.7
Darren Sproles    32   25   12   .781   .375   .480   7.0
Austin Collie     45   23   22   .511   .489   .957   6.2
Steve Johnson     40   23   15   .575   .375   .652   8.1

Baldwin’s performance on third downs was nearly identical to fellow undersized, undrafted Wes Welker. As compared to the other most frequent third-down targets, Welker and Baldwin (and Austin Collie) were most efficient at turning their completions into first downs more than 90 percent of the time. The only difference? Baldwin also mixed in enough yards after catch to rank third in yards per target. (Related: Victor Cruz, whoa!)

Such play convinced Football Outsiders to rank Baldwin No. 1 on their list of top 25 “prospects” (young players without starting experience or elite draft pedigree) entering last season. But while the rest of the Seahawks’ receiving core improved with Wilson replacing Jackson under center, Baldwin wasn’t nearly as effective during a sophomore campaign that was plagued by injury. He came up with just eight first downs on 13 completions among the 23 passes Wilson threw him on third down.

Over such a small sample, Baldwin’s decline on third down could have been nothing but noise; he came up a yard short of the sticks three times, and turning those plays into first downs would have been enough to make him a much more effective player. However, Baldwin got worse across every down; his DVOA (Football Outsiders’ measure of per-play effectiveness) dropped from 14.2 percent better than average and tops among the team’s receives to right at league average and far worse than Rice and Tate.

On the “Fifth Quarter” postgame show, Baldwin provided an alternative explanation, pointing out that the hamstring injury that sidelined him during training camp prevented him from getting needed work with Wilson. Indeed, this year’s Football Outsiders Almanac notes that Baldwin got better as the 2012 season went on.

Now healthy and with the benefit of a full camp with Wilson, Baldwin appears to have the timing he needs to be a factor on third downs. That’s a big addition to what was already a potent Seahawks passing attack.

Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Play Index was invaluable in calculating these stats.

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