It was as amazing was it was unexpected. Boldin was a second-round pick who had an solid college career but one tarnished by an ACL tear that caused him to miss his junior season and struggle at the Combine. He wasn’t even the highest wide receiver drafted by the Cardinals, who selected Bryant Johnson in round 1 despite the fact that he never won a college football game. No one had high expectations for the Arizona offense, with Jeff Blake at quarterback and Dave McGinnis as head coach; the Cardinals would ultimately end up last in the NFL in points scored. As an unheralded rookie on a bad team, Boldin wasn’t one of the top sixty wide receivers drafted in fantasy leagues, and probably wasn’t even among the top 100. That makes his production even more incredible.
The table below lists the best fantasy performances by wide receivers in week 1 of the NFL since 2000, with 1 point per reception, 0.1 points per receiving yards, and 6 points per touchdown. The “Exp” column shows the experience level of the receiver; the last column shows the player’s Average Draft Position among wide receivers, if in the top sixty.
But back to Boldin, who used his initial performance as a catapult to an incredible rookie season. Boldin’s 1,377 yards remain the 2nd highest in NFL history, behind only Bill Groman’s 1,473 yards in the AFL’s inaugural season. He became the first receiver to catch 100 passes as a rookie, and nobody has come very close to matching that mark since. He scored 8 touchdowns, more than double the amount of any other Cardinal that season. With the likely exception of Randy Moss’ 1998 performance, Boldin had the best rookie season by a wide receiver ever.
A knee injury sidelined Boldin for the first six games of his second season. He would still wind up leading the league in targets per game in 2004, and caught 47 passes over the last 8 games. In 2005, Boldin caught 102 passes for 1,402 yards and 7 TDs in 14 games, and led the NFL in receiving yards per game. In 2006, his numbers dropped with Matt Leinart starting, but Boldin made his second Pro Bowl and gained another 1200 yards. In 2007 and 2008 injuries would strike, limiting him to 12 games and 11 starts each season. Still, Boldin’s per game numbers remained excellent, and he scored 20 touchdowns; he had another solid season in 2009, at the age of 29, although by then it appeared that Boldin’s physical style of play had begun to take a toll on his body.
Boldin entered the league at age 23, and his first seven seasons were incredible, especially on a per-game basis. When looking at receivers, I occasionally use something I call Adjusted Catch Yards, which starts with receiving yards and then gives players 5 yards for every reception and 20 yards for every touchdown.1 The table below shows every receiver with at least 100 ACY per game through their first seven seasons:
Putting aside Lionel Taylor who was a receptions machine on a bad Broncos team in the early days of the AFL, Boldin is only behind some very impressive names. Boldin was a monster when healthy for the Cardinals, but suffered a bit with injuries and languished on several bad teams. And he didn’t always have good quarterback play: of his 95 games in Arizona, Kurt Warner was the starter for only 47 of them. Interestingly enough, though, Boldin produced regardless of who was the quarterback:
For awhile, it looked like Boldin was one of the game’s best and a potential future Hall of Famer. His production in his first seven years was incredible. It’s true that Boldin started at age 23, and if you examined receivers from age 23 to 29 (instead of looking at receivers by experience level), Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Isaac Bruce would pass him in ACY/G, although he’d move back ahead of Harrison. But in any event, at his peak, he compares favorably to some of the best receivers of the last two decades.
Unfortunately, since going to Baltimore, Boldin has gone from one of the game’s best playmakers to the third most valuable offensive player on a defensive team. Boldin had the worst statistical season of his career on a per-game basis in 2010, and only rebounded slightly in 2011. It doesn’t appear likely that Boldin has any more elite seasons left, and I doubt history will be very kind to Boldin. But I’ll always remember him as a fearless receiver with Hall of Fame run-after-the-catch ability and for being one of the toughest and most dominant players in the league during his prime. He first flashed that nine years ago today.
- You can — and should — quibble with the weights, but in any event I prefer ACY to any of the three underlying stats on their own. At some point, I plan to finalize exactly what I think the weights should be. [↩]
- Once you adjust for the quality of quarterback. Boldin’s numbers with and without Fitzgerald are nearly identical: 6.2 R/G, 78 Y/G and 0.5 TD/G with Fitzgerald and 6.2 R/G, 82 Y/G and 0.5 TD/G without Fitzgerald. But Warner was there for 46 of the 75 games where both Fitzgerald and Boldin were together, whereas Warner was there for just 1 of the 20 games Boldin played without Fitzgerald. Boldin’s numbers with both Warner and Fitzgerald: 46 games, 6.7 R/G, 84 Y/G, 0.6 TD/G; Boldin’s numbers with a different QB and Fitzgerald: 29 games, 5.3 R/G, 70 Y/G, 0.3 TD/G. So it was the presence of Warner for a large percentage of the Fitzgerald games that kept Boldin’s numbers appear constant both with and without Fitzgerald. [↩]