ST. JOSEPH — The Chiefs’ first-round draft pick from 2011 wanted to establish something right away at the start training camp.
His first name is not Jonathan, as listed in rosters and other published materials. And it’s not John. It’s Jon.
“J-O-N,” emphasized wide receiver Jon Baldwin.
Baldwin has a chance to establish more than just a name for himself in camp and in his second season. This could be a breakthrough year for Baldwin, a physically gifted 6-foot-4, 230-pounder to establish himself as an elite receiver in the NFL.
The absence of veteran Dwayne Bowe, who has yet to sign his $9.5 million tender as the club’s franchise player, has thrust Baldwin into the role of the club’s No. 1 receiver. And even after Bowe eventually signs and reports to camp, big things will be expected of Baldwin, who was just an afterthought in the offense during an injury-marred rookie season last year.
“He feels like he might be the guy, and without Bowe being here, he sees that opportunity,” head coach Romeo Crennel said. “When we drafted him, we felt good about his talent, about his size, about him going to get the football the way he goes to get it.
“He worked hard this offseason. He reported in great shape. He has a good attitude, so I anticipate that he’ll have a good year.”
Baldwin says he’s more comfortable in camp this year, and how could he feel any other way? His rookie season could not have gotten off to a worst start. Baldwin missed almost all of training camp and the first five games of the regular season because of a broken thumb sustained in a locker room fight.
He caught just 21 passes in 11 games but showed flashes of why the Chiefs made him the 26th overall pick when he caught five passes for 82 yards against San Diego, including a leaping 39-yard grab in the end zone after a nifty double move for his only touchdown of the season.
“I feel super-motivated,” said Baldwin. “I feel so much more comfortable, knowing the whole offense, building the relationship with the quarterbacks and the other receivers,” Baldwin said.
That comfort level began during offseason workouts and organized team activities (OTAs), when Baldwin made dazzling catches on almost a daily basis, particularly on fades in the corner of the end zone where the Chiefs — like most teams — don’t have defensive backs tall enough or with enough leaping ability to defend someone like Baldwin, who has 33½-inch arms and a 42-inch vertical leap, which led all receivers at the 2011 NFL combine.
“The main thing, to tell you the truth, is just to try and make every play,” Baldwin said. “That is one of my goals is to try to make those type of plays and to make plays, period. I was a basketball player, and rebounding was one of the things that I was able to do well. So I just try to translate that to when I played basketball back in the day on the football field.”
Baldwin, an all-state basketball player as well as all-state football player at famed Aliquippa (Pa.) High School before he went to the University of Pittsburgh, soon discovered how difficult the adjustment is for wide receivers going from the college to the NFL level.
Baldwin might have caught 110 passes for 1,933 yards and 13 touchdowns in his last two seasons in college, but the NFL was a quantum leap, even for someone with his hops.
“Coming from college, it’s a lot different,” he said. “You’re not open as long as you are in college. In college, you might be open for five seconds. You don’t have that time in the NFL. As you get more comfortable in the NFL, it’s a lot easier when you build your confidence.”
Baldwin built on his confidence from the offseason program with a vigorous workout regimen leading into training camp.
He ran six miles a day. He hit the Stairmaster for 25 minutes. Then the elliptical machine. And he showed up at hot high school fields and joined teammates running patterns for the Chiefs’ quarterbacks.
“We worked a lot on conditioning and agility,” Baldwin said. “If you’re conditioned, it’s half the battle. You don’t want to come to training camp and you’re struggling to get through the practices because you are out of shape. That was one of the main things I was focusing on.
“When you go to camp, you want to build team camaraderie. We talk to one another about certain things, where they want us to be on certain routes, what we saw, what they saw, it makes us a better team period.”
Baldwin and Cassel got crossed up on some routes in Friday’s first full practice of camp, but unlike last year, they have the luxury of time to correct the issues.
“All the rookies that came in last year got off to a slow start because of the simple fact they didn’t have the OTAs and the offseason to work together,” Cassel said of last year’s lockout, “so we spent a lot of time this offseason trying to build a relationship, build a rapport, talk through a bunch of different routes and how we see them conceptually and also against different defenses, so I think it was a lot of good work.
“Now that we’re out here against our defense and you get to see somebody else out in front of you, that’s when you start to really apply it and try to make strides.”
Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers thinks Baldwin and the team’s secondary will benefit from each other.
“Baldwin is a competitor,” Flowers said. “He has a great build on him. He feels like this is his year to make some plays for this team. It’s my job to step his game up, and it’s his job to keep me on my toes.”