In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or jumping from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
The Seattle Seahawks built a championship organization under Pete Carroll and John Schneider on a foundation of players discarded, overlooked, undervalued and misjudged by the football cognoscenti. Seattle swiped these diamonds deemed imperfect by others to construct a dominant NFC power.
Through this prism, we view Tyler Lockett. Despite a prolific college career as a returner and receiver -- one that saw him set several Kansas State records -- the 5-foot-10, 182 pound Lockett slid to the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft while being knocked for his lack of prototypical size. As a rookie, Lockett quickly dashed those concerns, becoming a dynamic deep threat and earning first-team All-Pro honors as a kick returner.
Why Tyler Lockett is on the list
From the start of his rookie year, Lockett was one of the best kick and punt returners in the NFL. Literally. His first punt return of the regular season went for a touchdown.
Possessing superior vision and speed, he hits holes in open space, is shifty in tight quarters and quick enough to outflank onrushing tacklers. Lockett led the NFL with 1,231 total return yards last season and is the only rookie in the Super Bowl era to record six-plus receiving touchdowns, one-plus kick return for a TD and one-plus punt return for a TD.
We've seen dynamic rookie return men sparkle before, only to fall flat in other aspects of the pro game (cough -- Cordarrelle Patterson! -- cough). We have no such concerns for Lockett.
The pint-sized wideout entered the NFL as a sublime route runner. Lockett's quick feet allow him to make sharp, quick cuts to create loads of separation. He's almost Antonio Brown-esque in his route skills, as you can see from this video:
His comeback routes are so precise, as he gets so wide open that it often appears the defensive backfield blew coverage. There isn't a route on the tree Lockett can't run with precision. One slight dip on a deep pattern can turn around the corner, and Lockett's speed leaves defenders little chance to recover. The wideout also does a superb job stacking the defensive back once he gets a step, so the defender can't make a play on the ball.
Lockett's natural speed provides him cushion from getting knocked around at the line of scrimmage. Defenders know if they whiff, he's gone. He's also not a one-trick, deep-ball pony, like many other speedsters. Lockett possesses good understanding of the soft spots to sit versus zones and was fantastic coming back to the ball when Russell Wilson scrambled. That mind-meld with Wilson should only grow stronger.
While some will attempt to pigeon-hole Lockett as a slot receiver because of his size, that's a misnomer. Lockett lined up on the outside on 65.6 percent of his routes in 2015 and 63 percent of his 664 receiving yards came while he was lined up wide, per ESPN.
While Lockett didn't burst on the scene as quickly in the passing attack as he did as a returner (two goose eggs in the first six contests), his usage increased heavily down the stretch. The Seahawks deployed more designed screens, bunch formations and rub routes to get Lockett the ball in space. He became especially relied on when Thomas Rawls went down in Week 14, with Marshawn Lynch already injured.
When Seattle opened up the offense and placed control in Wilson's throwing arm, Lockett shined. Expect that role to increase in a more wide-open Seahawks offense in 2016.
Obstacles he'll face
Size always will be cited as an issue for Lockett. While he has strong hands at the point of catch and can hang on in traffic, he's not going to outjump DBs for the ball à la Dez Bryant, A.J. Green or Julio Jones. It's just not who he is. The Seahawks don't ask him to be that player, so the height concern, while worth mentioning, doesn't bother us.
Doug Baldwin told reporters this offseason that Lockett has been working on getting off the line of scrimmage better. Lockett often lined up off the scrimmage line in order to avoid being jammed, and his quick feet also allow him clean breaks. It might not have been a huge issue as a rookie, but with more defenders poised to slow him down by any means possible, having additional tricks up his sleeve -- especially against bigger corners -- is a must.
One big question surrounding the entire Seahawks offense entering 2016 will be how productive the passing attack is without the threat of Lynch and a power run game. If teams aren't stacking the box and instead throw extra coverage Lockett's way, will he still win with regularity?
Expectations for 2016
As such, expect Lockett's usage to shoot up. He played just over 61 percent of the Seahawks' offensive snaps as a rookie and was targeted only 69 times. Those numbers will both go way up. While Baldwin will remain WR1, Lockett will vault to a high-end WR2 with deep-play ability. Over the final five games of the 2015 regular season, Lockett compiled 23 catches for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Extrapolate those stats over the course of the season and he'd be looking at 74 catches, 1,018 yards and 10 touchdown catches.