Tyler Lockett is elite. The ability of the Seahawks wide receiver is obvious even before looking at the data with the eye test being more than sufficient. Yet, thanks to charting companies like NFL Next Gen Stats, Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions, we have metrics to better assess the true abilities of players and teams. The 27-year-old Lockett is no exception.
There are certain numbers that require further digging, with film work acting as the complimentary explanation. Take Lockett’s press percentage figure provided by Next Gen Stats. According to NGS, Lockett’s opponents chose to press him on just 15.5 percent of snaps. In comparison, Stefon Diggs was pressed 42 percent of the time.
Lockett was one place ahead of Diggs and ranked second overall in Nick Shook’s NFL.com article sorting the Top 10 wide receivers in expected catch rate. Shook, writing for Around The NFL, suggested that opponents were “likely fearful of [Lockett’s] potential to beat them deep after winning the jam at the line.” This explanation misses important details.
Lockett has never fully recovered his peak explosiveness after his injury-laden 2016 season. In that second year as a Seahawk, he tore the PCL in his right knee, but played through the Week 2 injury. Then his season was ended by a brutal Week 16 double-leg break, where Lockett fractured his right fibula and tibia.
Lockett still has plenty of quicks, but the dynamism and burning top end speed that we saw from him as a rookie has dipped. Instead, he has managed to become an oxymoronic target. He is now a deep, though only 5-foot-10, possession receiver. Russell Wilson rarely targets Lockett in the shallow areas of the field. Instead, the quarterback loves Lockett’s mastery of downfield receiving. Yet, this isn’t based in pure burner traits.
This was especially true last year after Week 10, the game in which Lockett got hurt. Prior to the severe lower leg contusion that led to a hospital stay, the former Kansas State standout was on pace for 105 receptions, 1,364 yards, and 11 touchdowns. These metrics would have finished third, third, and first in the NFL respectively. Instead, the receiver finished 2019 with an 82 reception,1,057 yards, and eight touchdowns stat line. Though he played, he basically missed Week 13 with no receptions.
Ultimately, the thinking that Lockett was rarely pressed because opponents were scared of his ability to “beat them deep after winning the jam at the line” is partially true, given his obvious deep possession skill. However, the explanation ignores the work of Brian Schottenheimer. One of the best aspects of the Seattle offensive coordinator is his understanding of skill sets and his deployment of that talent. Lockett is included in this.
Schotty’s alignment of Lockett is a big reason the receiver did not see much press coverage. It can partially explain the NGS figure of Lockett’s average cushion being more than a yard above Saints receiver Michael Thomas too (6.1 to 4.8).
More than fear of Lockett as an individual, these numbers are based in the fact that corners do not want to come down to a press alignment when the receiver is yard or more off the line of scrimmage, giving them instant space and separation pre-snap. This is a far more difficult situation than jamming an opponent on the LOS. Particularly when that pass catcher is Tyler Lockett. Furthermore, when he is in the slot, linebackers and safeties do not wish to cover him down the field.
The bigger-bodied Seattle pass catchers enable Schottenheimer to align Lockett off the line of scrimmage for the majority of the receiver’s snaps. This isn’t just a slot deal. When split out wide, Lockett is mainly backed up. In addition, Schottenheimer chose to align Lockett in the slot for over 60 percent of the 2019 snaps, per PFF, maximizing the space the receiver could work. More importantly, it increased the chances of having a linebacker or safety as the nearest player to the catch point, not a cornerback.
Blending some charting with tape illustrates the importance of alignment in relation to Lockett, his press percentage faced, and his mismatches enjoyed. To make the data more manageable for my small brain and Windows 7 computer, I looked at a small sample size, studying Lockett’s “explosive” 2019 catches. I’m using the Seattle definition, explosive being a reception of 16 yards or greater. (Yes it’s flawed, deal with it.) Lockett had 21 explosive catches last season, so here’s all of them broken down into different categories:
|Explosive Receptions||On LOS||Off LOS||Routes From Outside||(W/Nasty Split)||Routes From Slot||(#3 Slot)||Versus Man Coverage||(Press Man)||Versus Zone Coverage||(Press Zone)||(Off Man)||(Off Zone)|
That split between Lockett being aligned off the line of scrimmage (12) and on (9) isn’t extreme. However, Lockett ran his routes from the roomier slot on seven of those nine reps on the line. For the two remaining ones, where he started outside, Lockett aligned in a nasty split - essentially a slot position.
Such alignment tended to make it obvious to Wilson that defenses were in zone, as a linebacker or safety capping the slot was obviously not in man coverage on Lockett. For those nine reps placed on the line, Lockett made all nine of the catches against zone defense. Just two of the nine happened against press alignments, but only one was outside of the slot - or in real press. Eight of the nine explosive catches where Lockett began on the line happened from the slot, versus a non-cornerback clearing out to an underneath landmark.
Those eight receptions took place in the open space of zone, something Lockett has great feel for. More importantly, the catches happened nearest to a linebacker or a safety. Indeed, PFF had Lockett as benefiting greatly from coverage by non-corners, with 43 percent of his yards (trailed only Chris Godwin’s 46 percent) and 50 percent of his touchdowns coming against linebackers or safeties. Notice also that 15 of Lockett’s 21 explosive catches came against zone.
Talk of the NFL being a ‘mismatch league’ is more tired than me without coffee in the morning. However, the saying is as true as my misery without caffeine. Wilson deserves credit for identifying these mismatches, but major props should be given to Schottenheimer for 1) providing them and 2) supplying easy ways to identify them through pre-snap indicators like a tight end/running back out wide, shifting, motion, and other methods. Lockett’s success is evidence.
Seattle’s ability to find the mismatch is largely explained by Lockett’s whole slot production. Remember that the slot is a world of greater space and likelier, more glaring mismatches. PFF logged Lockett with 64 catches, 901 yards, and six touchdowns from the slot. That’s 78 percent, 85 percent, and 75 percent of Lockett’s total 2019 numbers. Additionally, PFF calculated Lockett as placing first in passing rating from the slot at 128.1.
Let’s now delve into the six press coverage situations Lockett managed to record explosive catches on. Beginning with the first press zone scenario, he was aligned in the slot, off the line of scrimmage, and was not re-routed after the snap. It was an intermediate Cover 3 zone defender aligning in a press alignment before pushing to a landmark outside of Lockett.
The other press zone rep came outside versus Cover 3 where the cornerback did not follow Lockett downfield. In a rare moment, Lockett was lined up on the line outside and a defender decided to press align him - this was the only one of Lockett’s 21 explosive catches that came on the LOS, "outside" and versus press.
However, Schottenheimer helped Lockett by reducing his split to a nasty width and calling play action. It was also obvious that the coverage faced was middle of the field closed zone, as it was a linebacker aligned over Lockett and the outside corner was positioned way off and wide, while the safety was single high. Finally, Schotty gave Lockett his third-most effective route by EPA - an over or "slice."
This, once more, was not real press.
It’s the quadruplet of press man reps which demonstrate Lockett being protected from pure press coverage, where a defender jams him and then follows him down the field - the real stuff. On all four of these explosive reps, Schottenheimer aligned his top receiver off the line of scrimmage, giving him extra room to stay clean and release downfield. This is vital.
Week 7 vs. Baltimore
The Ravens were in Cover 0. Marlon Humphrey was in a press man one-on-one with Lockett off the line of scrimmage. It was a terrible situation to be in with Lockett’s skills separating well throughout the over route and an awesome deep catch adjustment for 33 yards. Humphrey found things difficult:
Here's the annotated video:
Week 8 at Atlanta
The Falcons were in Cover 1. Nickel cornerback Kendall Sheffield was in a no-man’s land of quasi press, a disaster against Lockett. Jamming the receiver is hard, as he is off the line of scrimmage. Seattle got 20 yards.
On the same drive, Lockett roasted Cover 1 and Sheffield again. The cornerback was again in trouble because of Lockett being off the line. The supreme concentration at the catch point made this one work and the Seahawks got their second 20 yard gain.
Week 12 at Philadelphia
The Eagles heavily used an inverted Tampa 2 look this game that they layered Cover 0 blitzing into. Off the line of scrimmage and out wide, Lockett faced the one-on-one of Jalen Mills' Cover 0 and won, getting the corner to open before taking the best possible release for a huge 38-yard reception. It featured more awesome receiver craft.
On these reps, pressing Lockett was a bad idea because he was off the line of scrimmage. He could work all of his skills. However, it’s a conflicting scenario for defenders because ideally, you want to be able to jam Lockett and prevent his work at the top of routes. That's especially true when blitzing, thinking you only have to cover for a limited time. Another factor is third down, where you don't want to give up the easy completion short.
Against off coverage, Lockett is elite at getting onto a defender’s toes, stemming to create leverage, and then breaking open. Whatever he is facing, Lockett has perfected: the basketball lean to separate, the high concentration to track the ball, the late hands at the catch point, and the over-the-shoulder, high-point, bucket catch. He’s frightening to cover.
Putting Lockett’s 15.5 percent press percentage-faced (NGS) down to his potential to beat receivers deep is overly simplistic. (You can argue the proposition of pressing DK Metcalf is far scarier) Schottenheimer has deployed Lockett in advantageous alignments to protect his small 182-pound frame from having to face press coverage from bigger, longer corners. Plus, the play caller has regularly manufactured mismatch situations for Lockett’s brilliance.
It's this combination that led to Lockett clocking the highest wide-open rate of Shook's Top 10 receivers in expected catch rate, with NGS calculating it at 22.7 percent. The days of Lockett's early extension being bemoaned from the Seahawks twitter cesspool seem utterly ludicrous now.
Seattle saw Lockett's potential. The receiver has fulfilled it to the extent that he is one the NFL's most underpaid players. He's even managed to replace the slot production of the legendary Doug Baldwin. Let’s hope the success of Wilson, Lockett, and Schottenheimer continues into a fully healthy 2020 - on the field and in the data.