St. Joseph, Mo. - Larry Fitzgerald saw it more than a year ago when the tall, lanky kid met him out in Arizona for a pre-draft workout. He was unpolished, but you couldn't deny him a catch once it hit his hands, and the Cardinals' all-everything receiver couldn't deny that the kid had potential.
It’s been a while since Jonathan Baldwin met Fitzgerald in the desert, hit the weights, ran routes, and spoke about football. The second-year receiver makes the tougher catches look easier now, and from the stands at Missouri Western State University, fans are getting the same glimpses at Baldwin’s promising career that Fitzgerald did in their pre-2011 Draft workout.
"Everybody knows that he's got unbelievable athletic ability," Fitzgerald said after a joint practice with the Chiefs this week. "He's got an uncanny ability to high-point the ball and he's much faster than you think he is. With his potential, there are going to be some opportunities for him to make plays."
The thing that separated them on the practice field then - and still separates them on the practice field now - is that oozing potential. As a receiver with very few play-making equals in the NFL, Fitzgerald has realized his. Baldwin hasn’t.
That can start to change on Friday night. Against Arizona, Baldwin can take another step. He can continue his electric training camp on the playing field with one of his idols on the opposing sideline.
“He was one of the guys I looked up to,” said Baldwin. “The way he attacks the ball, the way he approaches the game. I just try to take some things out of his game and try to incorporate them into mine.”
It may be the preseason, but it’d be a big step for Baldwin if he played like Fitzgerald on Friday. They’ll both line up as their team’s respective number one receivers, regardless of how long it might last.
Up until now, the play that aptly sums up Baldwin’s short career never actually happened – a 49-yard bomb he had to wrap his arms around the back of Broncos safety Brian Dawkins to reel in. But it was negated by penalty.
The play showed that Baldwin can come down with any catch thrown his way, but until the Chiefs benefit from his receptions on a consistent basis, they don’t truly mean anything. Not yet, at least.
Take the names away and it was difficult to tell which receiver was which in this week’s joint practice between the Chiefs and Cardinals.
Baldwin started with a Fitzgerald-esque catch of his own. In 7-on-7 drills, Baldwin shook off press coverage, and then leapt over Cardinals cornerback William Gay in the front left corner of the end zone. He adjusted to the ball in-flight and grabbed it at its highest point for the day’s first score.
He followed that up with a touchdown against Patrick Peterson – the fifth player selected in Baldwin’s draft class – in cornerback/receiver drills. He set up the 2012 Pro Bowler with an outside head fake, and then darted inside on a slant. Peterson recovered, but Baldwin used his big frame to shield the ball away as he caught the ball for another score.
Both plays would pale in comparison to what Baldwin did next, though. Cardinals corner Michael Adams read
The Arizona defensive backs were dumbfounded, throwing their hands up in exasperation after Baldwin tapped both his feet in bounds.
“Are you kidding me?” said one, looking at another.
Those plays – the ones that few other pass-catchers routinely make – have to come in a game in order for Baldwin to truly take the next step.
On Friday, against Fitzgerald’s team, an opportunity will come. And if Baldwin doesn’t want to be remembered as the tall, lanky kid with the oozing potential, he’ll play like the player that Fitzgerald and Chiefs coaches think he can become.