Before Friday night’s exhibition game in Kansas City, Chiefs wideout Jon Baldwin and his fellow receivers ogled 49ers quarterback Colin Kaerpernick’s passes during warm-ups. Tuesday, he found himself catching those passes from his new teammate for the first time.
“I was saying he throws a really good ball,” Baldwin told reporters during his first full day with his new team. “And then two or three days later I’m here. It’s kind of funny but I think it’s going to work out. It’s a blessing in disguise, it’s a great opportunity to be here.”
The 49ers traded for Baldwin Monday and are hoping he picks things up quickly, as just 19 days remain before the start of the regular season. They also hope he’s a better fit in the offense than the player he was traded for, A.J. Jenkins.
Like Jenkins, behind Baldwin is a forgettable past littered with unmet expectations. As a rookie in his first NFL training camp, he got into a fight with his well-respected teammate Thomas Jones, injuring his own wrist forcing him out of action for the season’s first five weeks.
That year he appeared in 11 games, made three starts and netted 21 catches for 254 yards and a score. Rookie receivers are often given the benefit of doubt in their first full year as they adjust to the speed and complexities of the professional game, but Baldwin’s underwhelming second season began to draw concern from his organization.
In his 46 targets, Baldwin made just 20 receptions while his struggling quarterbacks had just 47.8 rating when throwing his way, according to Pro Football Focus.
When the Chiefs brought in new head coach Andy Reid, he showed little tolerance of Baldwin’s dropped passes and overall lack of production in his new offense.
“I can tell you that when given the opportunity in this league, you’d better catch the football,” Reid told reporters after Baldwin dropped a catchable pass Friday’s loss to San Francisco.
Baldwin joins a crowded group of receivers competing for a roster spot but figures into the equation given his experience over the others. Aside from the team’s No. 1 option Anquan Boldin, no player outside of Austin Collie has a significant track record in the NFL. Mario Manningham won’t be available until at least Week 7 and Michael Crabtree’s prognosis is still unknown as he works his way back from May’s Achilles tear.
“It’s a fresh start,” Baldwin said. “I just got to do what all these coaches need me to do, just be real precise with things from that standpoint. Just soak all of it in, just get around Anquan and just learn things from him.”
Baldwin’s said his former teammate in Kansas City Steve Breaston would speak highly of Boldin and use him as a positive example after the two played together with the Arizona Cardinals.
His new offensive coordinator Greg Roman hopes Baldwin spends plenty of time utilizing Boldin and fellow veteran Vernon Davis as resources to familiarize him with the offense and new team.
“If I was a young player and I didn’t do that, I would want somebody to smack me in the head. If you have the opportunity to watch, or listen or learn from players with that track record of success… and you don’t take advantage of that, we need to have a talk,” Roman said.
As a blank canvas, San Francisco hopes it can paint Baldwin as the productive receiver he projected to be out of Pittsburgh after being drafted 26th overall in 2011. He has size (6’4”, 230 pounds) and speed (he ran a 4.50 second 40-yard dash and had a 42-inch vertical leap at the combine).
Given the type of big, physical corners inhabiting the NFC west, the 49ers deemed Baldwin a better fit while Jenkins struggled in press coverage during his time in San Francisco. But Baldwin’s physical skills will be of little use if his drops persist as his hands have become apart of his negative reputation.
“You know you want to catch them all, you may drop one or two,” Baldwin said. “You pride yourself as a receiver to want to catch them all. You can’t get too down on it, you just got to go out and make the next play.”