SEATTLE — On the final day of the NFL draft, Doug Baldwin took his girlfriend and best friend to a Mexican restaurant across the street from his house.
He knew his name wouldn’t get called during the draft’s first two days, so he had watched on his couch as friends and guys he played against were drafted. But the third day, reserved for rounds four through seven, held more promise.
On that final day in 2011, 156 players were selected. Baldwin wasn’t one of them.
When the final pick was made, Baldwin sent his girlfriend and friend back across the street. He wanted to stew, alone, and calm down. His football career stood at a cliff. Should he jump and try to make a team as a longshot undrafted free agent, or should he take his Stanford degree and begin a career in business?
He sat in the restaurant for 30 minutes. He didn’t know what he would do.
On the first day of the NFL draft, Aaron Curry got dressed in an expensive and shiny charcoal suit. He was one of the few select players invited to New York to attend the 2009 draft in person. Joining him that night were his mom, fiancee, siblings and Bryson Merriweather, a 12-year-old with leukemia whom Curry invited.
Curry knew he’d hear his name in the first round. A linebacker at Wake Forest, he had become one of the draft’s most intriguing players because of his intangibles and combination of speed and power.
He didn’t wait long.
When commissioner Roger Goodell called his name with the fourth overall pick, Curry hugged his mom, crying, and told her, “Thank you, Mom, for everything that you’ve done for me.”
Now he could pay her back.
The football industry is malleable and subject to heavy outside influence. Technology becomes more accessible, and the football industry sucks it up with detailed film breakdowns. Information becomes more organized, and the football industry deploys advanced statistics.
But while technology and its vats of information have done many things to change the game, it has yet to corral one giant arena: the draft.
No matter how many resources teams throw into evaluating a player, no matter how many people they talk to or how much film they watch, they have yet to conquer the variables.
And it leaves us with the same reality that has haunted people in the game for years: The line between highly paid first-round draft picks and lowly undrafted free agents is much smaller than we like to believe. If Doug Baldwin can carve out a professional career while Aaron Curry fizzles, what does that say about the system?
They call Doug Baldwin “Angry Doug Baldwin” for a reason. He’s angry. Not all the time or at anyone in particular, but he’s angry, in many ways, at the system.
“I would say I had anger-management issues, to be honest with you,” Baldwin said. “But it was only on the football field.”
Baldwin, on the surface, is a dime-a-dozen receiver. He is 5 feet 10, 189 pounds. He isn’t a blazer like Percy Harvin or other small but lightning-quick receivers.
But Baldwin has a knack for creating separation. He has great releases on his routes, teammates say, and can shake defenders because of his quick change of direction. He leads the team with 296 receiving yards, on 17 catches this season.
“I told Doug this,” said former Seattle cornerback Antoine Winfield, “but in my 15 years playing in the slot, he’s one of the best players I’ve seen.”
The reason Baldwin is here is partly because of his natural athletic ability. But more than that, it’s because of the way he studies. It’s the subtle details he picks up from film that tip off what defenses might do.
Without that, Baldwin admits, he wouldn’t be in the NFL. With it, he’s valuable. After the Seahawks traded for Harvin this offseason, in fact, several teams called about acquiring Baldwin.
Aaron Curry’s stock blossomed between the end of the college season and the NFL draft. When scouts and personnel people peeked behind the curtains, they found a player with the drive, the intangibles, to become a force in the NFL.
As a senior, Curry won the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top linebacker. In stories before the draft, he was called a “safe bet” and a “sure thing.” Some even thought he might be the No. 1 pick.
Curry’s story is well-documented, but it also played a pivotal role in how teams viewed him. He grew up poor in North Carolina, then watched his family get evicted from their apartment while he was in college.
That burned inside of him.
“By all accounts,” said Louis Riddick, a scout with the Eagles at the time who now works for ESPN, “from all the people down at Wake Forest, they would have told you money wouldn’t change him.”
But Riddick also added this: Curry, in his opinion, was a late first-round or early second-round pick. He thought Curry was average in coverage and also as a pass rusher. He didn’t see a game-changer.
“He was way over-drafted,” Riddick said. “Point blank. People became enamored with what they thought were can’t-miss intangibles. That this guy would will himself and work himself into being someone who would ultimately be worthy of being a fourth-overall selection.
“But in the NFL, as an outside linebacker, if you can’t cover very well and you can’t rush the passer, how are you going to get drafted fourth overall? The expectations were such that there was no way he was going to meet them, anyway.”
Seattle general manager Tim Ruskell and his staff took Curry fourth, making him the highest drafted linebacker in nearly a decade. The Seahawks signed him to a $60 million contract, the most ever paid to a non-quarterback rookie.
He wouldn’t have to worry about money again.
Baldwin knew all about the reputation of Winfield, long considered one of the league’s best slot corners. So in preparation for Seattle’s game against Minnesota and Winfield, he wanted to crack the code.
“I would compare it to the stock market,” Baldwin said. “Everyone is trying to read into stuff to try to get a hint at what the stock market is going to do.”
Baldwin spent six hours during the week obsessing over film of Winfield. He talked with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and receiver Sidney Rice, both of whom were with Winfield in Minnesota. And Baldwin talked with cornerback Richard Sherman to see what Winfield might be thinking.
When he pieced it all together, he had a clearer picture of how to attack the three-time Pro Bowler.
If Winfield was in Baldwin’s face pressing at the line of scrimmage — usually a sign of man-to-man coverage — more often than not he was trying to get his hands on him before dropping into a zone. If he was lined up shaded to the inside, Baldwin figured it would be cover two. If he lined up outside, it was cover three or cover four.
And if Winfield lined up 4 or 5 yards off Baldwin, that typically meant he was playing man-to-man.
Baldwin also noticed that Winfield always seemed in attack mode, which meant a stutter step or hesitation move might get him off balance.
“I think that was my first time being able to recognize stuff like that,” Baldwin said, “and now I’m able to do it just because I took the extra time to figure out what that was.”
In the opener this season at Carolina, Baldwin lined up in the slot with Golden Tate outside to his right. Before the snap, Carolina’s defenders looked at Baldwin and started shouting, “He’s going outside, he’s going outside.”
They were right. The route called for Tate to slip inside and rub Baldwin’s defender while Baldwin wheeled outside. At the snap, Baldwin acted like he was going to run an inside route, bringing cornerback Captain Munnerlyn with him.
He then hesitated for a moment so Tate could come across before busting outside. That allowed Baldwin to get open for a 25-yard catch.
“I want to know what coverage it is every single time,” Baldwin said. “I want to line up and be able to read what the defense is trying to do to me so I can get open. And that’s what separates guys at this level.”
Curry started his career with promise. The first four games, he looked like he could be a centerpiece of Seattle’s defense for years.
But around that time he hit what Zerick Rollins, his position coach that season, called the rookie wall. His play nose-dived.
“It just seemed like he never took the next step,” Rollins said. “So you ask the question: Why? You know he’s gifted, he’s smart, he cares about the game. I really can’t give you the answer.”
That’s part of the frustration in evaluating and developing players. Rarely are answers concrete. Talk to people around the game, and you hear so many variables about why some guys make it and others don’t, it’s hard to juggle them all.
Is he a good fit for the team’s scheme? Does he get along with his position coach? Does the scouting department’s view of the player match the way the coaching staff uses him? Do the veterans help him? How does he respond to money?
With Curry, several factors played a role in his struggles.
Rollins said Curry overthought what he should do on the field. As a result he looked bogged down and didn’t play fast.
“He struggled with just processing and being able to make plays,” Rollins said.
After his rookie year, Rollins and the rest of coach Jim Mora’s staff were fired, and Pete Carroll took over. Ken Norton Jr., the former Pro Bowl linebacker, became Curry’s new position coach.
When Norton watched Curry play, he saw a guy who struggled in space. Curry’s instincts didn’t kick in or simply weren’t there. “With a lot of things going on,” Norton said, “he wasn’t able to calculate everything as quick as you’d want.”
But there was something else. Once so driven to provide for his family, Curry lost the edge that so many fell in love with.
“The money replaced the poverty and solved a lot of the problems I had,” Curry told reporters in New York in May. “The status kind of got rid of all my motivation.”
Curry called himself “selfish” and “self-centered” early in his career and admitted that “football wasn’t my top priority.” It’s rare to hear a player speak so honestly about his failures, to be so self-aware, even if the end of his career was fast approaching (Curry retired in August after being cut by the Giants).
“That’s the one thing you can’t measure,” Norton said. “The drive inside someone, the edge, that ability to prove people wrong even when your goal may be to take care of your family. Because what happens when you reach that goal? Either a) you throw in the towel and are done or b) you’re smart enough to set new goals.
“Maybe he wasn’t able to set new goals, and it took his drive away.”
Doug Baldwin is happy he didn’t get drafted. He thinks it might be the best thing for him in the long run.
“What separates me is I’m a dog,” Baldwin said. “I use that term very strongly because that’s what I am. That’s why I have an angry demeanor. It’s not a front. It’s not a face.”
He still remembers the company he might have worked for had he not made the Seahawks. He’d been in talks with Dropbox, a company specializing in storing files, photos and videos, leading up to the draft. The day before the final cuts of training camp his rookie year, Baldwin called Dropbox and asked if he could still interview. He wanted to make sure he had options.
He hasn’t had to call about a job since.
Top-25 ranking is no guarantee
We looked at Rivals.com’s top 25 football recruits each year from 2002 through 2008. Nearly three times as many of the players were never drafted by NFL teams compared to those who became first-round picks. Of the 175 players:
31 Eventually became first-round NFL draft picks (17.8 percent).
84 Went undrafted (48 percent).