After a disappointing finish to the 2002 campaign, the Arizona Cardinals were a team in transition heading into the 2003 NFL Draft. Arizona had three picks in the first two rounds, and with a number of the team¹s veteran receivers departing, there was a gaping hole to fill.
A depleted receiving corps was bolstered with young talent – albeit inexperienced – when Bryant Johnson was selected out of Penn State with the 17th-overall pick. Linebacker Calvin Pace was taken with the very next selection, before an early entrant from Florida State by the name of Anquan Boldin was tabbed in the second round, 54th overall.
Anquan Boldin had a solid collegiate career with the Seminoles, and after having a strong junior season, he felt prepared for the next level.
Despite his Florida State production Anquan received a second-round grade from most NFL teams.
The Cardinals had seemingly placed a risky investment in their refurbished, young receiving corps, but needed immediate dividends to be paid. Johnson tallied 35 receptions for 438 yards and one touchdown in his rookie campaign an acceptable opening year.
Arizona's second-round pick, Boldin, finished with 10 receptions for 217 yards and two touchdowns in his first NFL game.
It was an NFL rookie single-game record for receiving yardage, and it quickly became apparent that Boldin was going to be a special player.
Boldin, not Johnson, would have the dominant rookie season with Arizona in 2003. And although the team didn¹t find the success it had hoped, Boldin was a young, shining star who had just recorded 101 catches for 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns. He was the league's lone rookie to earn Pro Bowl honors, and he was selected as the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Aside from his impressive stat line, maybe even more remarkable is that Boldin was successful with little more than good coaching. Many young players look to established teammates for advice, often asking questions about technique, scheme and how to be a pro. But Boldin was not afforded this luxury.
"My coaches were all I had," explains Boldin. "When I was brought in, it was to fill a need. I was thrown into the fire and expected to come in and immediately make plays. We didn't have the opportunity to sit back, waiting for our turn and learning under a veteran group. The expectation was to make an immediate impact."
Boldin was eager to find success. And as a result, he quickly grew into a mature and professional football player who worked with veteran know-how.
Becoming A Leader
After a strong rookie campaign, Boldin felt like an experienced pro when he entered his second season in 2004. The Cardinals continued getting younger that year when they grabbed University of Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald with the third-overall pick in the Draft.
Like Boldin, Fitzgerald didn't have that decorated teammate to look to for guidance in his first season. So, the 23-year-old, second-year pro, took the rookie under his wing.
"He looked to me and had a lot of questions coming in," recalls Boldin.
"Larry was raw, as any player is coming out of college. I always had the mindset that if I can help the next guy get better, we¹re going to get better as a team. I was more than willing to assist wherever I could."
Boldin's aid was part of what molded Fitzgerald into a young star.
Together, they led by example and helped shape many young receivers in what was one of the league's most prolific passing offenses.
By 2008, the veterans Boldin and Fitzgerald had become two of the NFL's most dominant receivers. They were the perfect duo to whom young players could look for leadership and advice. The season culminated in a trip to Super Bowl XLIII but ended with a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The agony of defeat left Boldin longing for another title opportunity an effort which is solely earned and never afforded.
A New Beginning
Last season, Boldin was traded to Baltimore. For the second time in his career, he was brought into an organization that had a need to fill, but this time, he was surrounded by virtually all veteran receivers. Boldin had a strong first season in purple and black, but the end result was a second crushing playoff blow at the hands of the Steelers.
This past offseason saw several departures from the Ravens' receiving corps, and the group had quickly evolved into a room full of rookies and second-year players. With the exception of Boldin and Lee Evans, who has dealt with a lingering injury that's kept him off the field, critics deemed the position too young and inexperienced to be successful.
Whether he was up to the challenge or not, Boldin was their new leader. Fortunately, he's embraced that role.
"I think he leads in two ways," describes wide receivers coach Jim Hostler. "One, by how he works every day, by how he practices, takes care of himself and approaches the game as a consummate pro. He can also teach them from a fundamental and technical standpoint, to help those young guys get better."
Above all, Boldin is that proven player with a calming presence that makes young players feel comfortable and their NFL transition seamless.
"He's just a great role model," rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith exclaims. "Anquan is a professional in every sense of the word. You respect him even more off the field, because of the way he conducts himself and the type of person he is."
With The Pieces In Place
Many theories would suggest that it takes the perfect combination of veteran leadership and young talent to reach the NFL's pinnacle a Super Bowl championship. And although several current Ravens, including Boldin, have tasted a title game, only linebacker Ray Lewis has earned the ultimate victory.
Much like Boldin in 2003, the Ravens' young, rookie players are making an immediate impact on the field. Veterans on both sides of the ball are also playing at a high level, and as Boldin explains, are working toward one common goal.
"I think about it all the time, and like me, some of the guys on this team have come so close, but only one guy has won the Big One," states Boldin.
"You have guys like Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed and others who have worked so hard and come so close, and for me, I want to get those guys to that position more than I want it for myself."
Boldin knows this Ravens' team is poised and capable of making a deep playoff run. To him, the individual accolades are no longer what playing the game is about. And when a veteran buys into that philosophy, there¹s no better message for a young player delivered by his mentor.
Boldin hopes his contributions as both a teammate and developer of young talent will help the Ravens' offense be successful. He wants nothing more than to do his part in a run at the championship, so that he and his veteran teammates can join Ray Lewis in relishing the ultimate football prize.
"Those guys deserve it," affirms Boldin. "They've put their all, their heart into it, and to be able to see those guys reach the pinnacle and get that championship would really mean a lot. To be honest, those are the moments that we play for at this point in our careers. We're playing it for the love of the game and to get to that championship. To win it with this group of guys would mean everything."
The pieces are in place to put the theories to test. With the lingering taste of January's bitter rivalry defeat, Boldin yearns for another opportunity to reach the summit of his career. And like Boldin, Baltimore longs for the moment when this group of elite veterans and rising rookie stars can share in that moment together, forever."