SEATTLE — In one of his first practices as a Seattle Seahawks receiver, Kansas State rookie Tyler Lockett faced four of his new teammates coming straight at him to his left side on a punt coverage drill. There was nobody to Lockett's right, leaving him an open highway if he wanted to make an easy gain. Instead, the third-round pick went straight at the four opponents, running around the wedge of special teams defenders as if they were standing still, and leaving them in the proverbial dust.
Head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider knew that they were getting a potentially explosive receiver in Lockett when they took him with the 69th overall pick. But they really wanted to put a bit of spice in their return game, and Lockett proved that he was ready to do that from the start of his NFL debut against the Broncos on Friday night. Lockett returned four kickoffs for 186 yards, including a 103-yard return with 11:33 left in the first half, a play that was also notable for field judge Eugene Hall running into Carroll on the sideline, an incident which somehow left the Seahawks with a 15-yard penalty on the subsequent kickoff.
"I thought Lockett's 83-yard touchdown was really good," Carroll quipped. "I didn't see the last 20."
After the game, Lockett said that he didn't see what happened to Carroll; he was too focused on not getting caught.
"What made it so special was the other 10 players and how everybody did their jobs," he said. "Them doing their jobs, I had to do my job. Each and every one of them did a perfect rep out there, and it's something we can continue to do as we go throughout the season."
Lockett also returned one punt for 18 yards, proving without a doubt that he has the talent to improve Seattle's formerly moribund return units. Percy Harvin never turned out to be the dynamic threat he was supposed to be outside of one return in Super Bowl XLIII, and punt returner Bryan Walters redefined the soft bias of low expectations—local announcers expressed happiness that Walters at least held onto the ball on fair catches.
Now, things look very different for Seattle's return units, and the rookie is the reason. Lockett won the Jet Award as the top return man in the NCAA in 2014, and it was no fluke—he led the nation in kick return average as a true freshman, and amassed 2,196 kick return yards and four touchdowns on 77 tries. In 2014, he added more touches as a punt returner with 21 returns for 402 yards and two more touchdowns.
Basically, whenever Tyler Lockett gets the ball in the open field and he has a decent lane, he's as good as gone. And the Seahawks, who traded their first-round pick to the Vikings in 2013 for what they thought would be the same kind of player in Harvin, may have hit the jackpot this time around. Schneider, who also pounded the table for Lockett's father Kevin in 1997 (Schneider was the Chiefs' director of pro personnel and Kansas City took the elder Lockett in the second round that year), felt that he had a special feel for the type of player Tyler Lockett could be.
"I was actually with his father in Kansas City, which is amazing and makes me feel very old, but Tyler is a phenomenal kid: academically, driven, captain, leader of his team—both of these guys are actually big-time leaders of their team," Schneider said on May 1, just after Lockett was drafted. "Those are some of the things that stood out with both of these guys—highly driven, just instincts and catching the ball. He is a great fielder. He’s incredible as a slot receiver inside. The week he had at the Senior Bowl was phenomenal. We just felt like he is the premier returner in this draft—there were three players we felt like we wanted to come out of the draft with, and we got two of them. I can’t tell you who the other one was, it’s kind of a bummer.”
Well, no bummers here. The Seahawks lost the game, 22–20, but they'll take those lumps if it means they've found their return savior in the long term. Now, the question is when does Lockett get serious reps as a first-team receiver? Far from a one-trick pony, Lockett also caught 249 passes for 3,710 yards and 29 touchdowns as Kansas State and led the Big 12 in receiving yards in 2014, despite a passing attack that wasn't exactly evolved. In fact, he broke all his dad's school records as a receiver, and he has great potential as a pure pass-catcher—especially in the slot. He's not a power guy at 5'10" and 182 pounds, and he tends to get vaporized at times when bigger defenders bear down on him, but that's not what makes Lockett the player he is—it's all about the open field and his second gear.
Teammate Doug Baldwin told me that Lockett is more polished as a rookie receiver than he was, and getting compliments for rookies from the perpetually testy Baldwin is no mean feat. Baldwin feels that it's his job to keep Lockett's head out of the clouds—he was teasing Lockett mercilessly as the rookie faced an inevitable media horde after the game—but you get the sense that everyone knows exactly what this kid could be.
"He’s shown a lot already," Carroll said of Lockett earlier this month. "He’s a fantastic worker, that’s one of the things I’d say first. We’ve all been impressed with his attention to detail and how he wants to get it right. He spends extra time and all that. He’s an unbelievably quick, fast guy, very confident catcher, really good route runner. He’s doing great. We’re not going to hold him back, he’s going to push it for as much play time as he can get as receiver and then we’re giving him a great shot to be returner in both kicks and punts. He’s done a great job coming up if he can hold on to it."
He's held on to everything so far, and if it continues, Tyler Lockett could bring an entirely new dimension to one of the NFL's best teams.