Tyler Lockett and Gale Sayers. Those two names will forever be linked, which feels bizarre to even think about, let alone write in a sentence that I assure you isn’t a lie.
There’s a touch of statistical quirkiness applied to the link in question. But it exists regardless, and any time a rookie wide receiver and kick returner can put his name alongside Sayers’, he’s doing more than establishing himself at lightning speed. He’s making history.
In 2015 Lockett joined Sayers as the only other rookie in NFL history to have five-plus touchdown receptions along with one punt return touchdown and a kickoff return touchdown, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times.
So he’s already known as a multi-purpose threat, though one weapon in his arsenal often gets more attention.
That’s going to happen after Lockett returned a kickoff 103 yards in his first preseason game. Then, in Week 3, he went two yards farther, bringing one back for a franchise-record 105-yard kick return touchdown. Oh, and he returned a punt 57 yards in his regular-season debut.
Lockett was electric as a returner throughout his rookie season, bookending the year with incredible performances. In Week 17 he became the first returner in a decade to record three 30-plus-yard punt returns during one game. Even more impressive, his 139 total punt return yards that day set another single-game Seahawks record.
More history then followed Lockett when he became the second rookie to win multiple player of the month awards, per NFC communications director Randall Liu.
But we’re not here to discuss Lockett the return man. We know that guy well. Lockett the returner will keep growing, and he’ll keep giving defenders a brief view of his name and number as both fade away in the distance.
To focus solely on that guy implies Lockett isn’t a multi-trick football magician, and instead he’s a player who will be shoehorned into a valuable, though highly specific, role. That isn’t a fate the 23-year-old will ever have to fight off, because the other Lockett—the wide receiver version—is already rising despite limited opportunities during his rookie season.
And now Lockett’s status in Seattle’s offense is set to grow, along with his place in the NFL receiver hierarchy. It’s not hard to see a near future with suddenly spiking offensive production, especially as Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll gushes about his sophomore wideout.
Earlier in June he used some promising words that hadn’t been attached to Lockett yet. Or at least one important word: “starter.”
The actual title of starter is vague for someone like Lockett. The result of the label carries much more meaning than the tag itself.
The on-field math is painfully simple but vitally important. It goes something like this: More snaps, opportunities and targets for a dynamic grass-scorching speed merchant should translate into a dramatic increase in every receiving statistic that matters.
Actually, that’s too simple, and we’ve seen the blind dot-connecting there fail before. But believing in Lockett is easier after he did so much, so fast as a receiver.
Lockett finished with 51 receptions for 664 yards, and that yardage tied him for third among all rookie receivers in 2015. He posted those numbers while on the field for 61.5 percent of the Seahawks’ offensive snaps throughout the regular season, according to Football Outsiders. Although his usage climbed as the season progressed, there were still nine weeks when Lockett’s snap percentage fell below 60.0.
Yet even with that modest workload, Lockett still scored six receiving touchdowns. His scoring production tied him with nine other receivers, and nearly all of those players ended the year with significantly higher snap counts.
|Snap counts for WRs with 6 TDs in 2015|
|Receiver||TDs||Snap count||Team snap %|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
It really doesn’t matter if he’s called a starter. What matters is that Lockett’s snaps and chances to explode upfield in a hurry are about to increase, and fast.
The Seahawks need an offensive infusion with the uncertainty surrounding running back Thomas Rawls and tight end Jimmy Graham. There’s optimism both will be recovered from their injuries and healthy before Week 1. Still, Lockett could be leaned on heavily given the severity of those injuries (a torn patellar tendon for Graham and an ankle fracture for Rawls).
Then, beyond being called a starter, he’ll also be groomed for another title: versatile offensive game-breaker.
“He’s a legit player for us, and he’s right in the middle of all our planning and all our preparation,” Carroll said, via Sheil Kapadia of ESPN.com.
Then, as Carroll continued, he described the wheels that are in motion for Lockett to evolve into an offensive pillar:
He’s going to be moved around to a lot. He'll be in a lot of different spots. He can do everything. We’re really pumped about him coming back. He looks so confident, which he always has. We had to make him prove it a little bit. But once we got a hold of the kind of dynamic player that he is, we used the heck out of him, and he’s going to get a lot of play time, a lot of stuff happening his way. Really helps Doug [Baldwin], really helps [Jermaine] Kearse. Those guys are great complements.
Being that dynamic and used in “a lot of different spots” requires a diverse skill set. Lockett has that in abundance and demonstrated it with his comically high efficiency on a variety of routes.
Lockett began to truly emerge in 2015 as a receiver from Week 11 onward, which is also when quarterback Russell Wilson started to sizzle. During that six-game stretch to end the regular season, Wilson threw 21 touchdown passes and just one interception.
He wasn’t targeting Lockett often during that period. But it didn’t matter, because as NFL.com analyst Matt Harmon noted in his breakdown of the 5’10” receiver’s route usage, Lockett transformed himself into a mind-numbingly efficient football vacuum.
Lockett ran 205 routes during the seven-game sample Harmon observed and was targeted on just 18 percent of them. He caught 75.7 percent of those targets, turning his sure-handed ways into five touchdowns and a ballooning average of 17.6 yards per reception.
What’s more important to note, though, is how Lockett went about the business of separating with ease. When you examine his route tree as Harmon did, it becomes clear he’s not just a speed threat or just a set of reliable hands capable of turning an underneath catch into a long gain.
No, he’s all of those things, all at once.
Lockett recorded an above-average success rate on every route aside from the screen, according to Harmon. That shows he’s both fast and smart.
Speed alone can be countered by the defense through deep bracket coverage or press coverage at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of a route. But Lockett knows how to vary his speed to keep defenders off balance before he either takes advantage of the buffer being offered and breaks off the route (curl, comeback, dig, out) or rapidly accelerates to win deep (corner, nine, post).
He plays a lot larger than his height suggests, and his mastery of how to use speed as an illusion has helped him bust through the slot label that follows most smaller receivers. That is why he lined up outside for 65.6 percent of his routes in 2015, according to ESPN Stats and Information (via Kapadia).
Lockett can’t be crammed into one box. He’s not purely a quick-footed athlete and returner capable of making defenders stumble foolishly in the open field, tackling only the air left behind. And he’s not just another small, shifty buzzing bee in the slot who needs specifically designed plays in space.
Quickly in his first season, Lockett matured into a multidimensional threat, which is the only label that can really be applied to him. Now in 2016, more of Lockett could mean more whiplash for opposing cornerbacks and more long jogs for six points.