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Seahawks on tape: How effective will Tyler Lockett be as a slot receiver?

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Lockett faces a new challenge in 2019. Having seen Doug Baldwin retire this offseason, Lockett’s preparations are undoubtedly trickier. His mentor has departed. Baldwin, though, was more than a talented receiver who helped Lockett develop as a player and a person.

Baldwin’s ability and skillset enabled Lockett to face nicer coverage (more on this later). With Baldwin no longing playing, there’s a narrative that Lockett will spend more time in the slot. This is a correct conclusion; however, the data shows that in 2018 Lockett aligned more in the slot than you’d think.

Per Pro Football Focus and the tweeting of @cmikesspinmove, in the three games Baldwin missed with injury plus the one game he played just 11 snaps, Lockett ran 60% of his routes from the slot. In the 12 other games of the season, that Baldwin did play, Lockett still ran a remarkably high 46% of his routes from the slot.

Lockett’s yards per catch from the slot of 17.5 placed 2nd in the NFL, just behind Tyreek Hill (18.2). Lockett’s entire season was stupidly good; a career-best year where Russell Wilson accomplished a perfect passing rating targeting the 26-year-old.

This was a performance that made Lockett’s preseason extension look like daylight robbery. At the time of the receiver signing the deal, the decision to extend from the Front Office was much-debated, -consternated and -eviscerated. Field Gulls’ John Fraley added more detail to the 2018 greatness that made John Schneider’s business look like thievery:

“Football Outsiders’ DVOA is a stat I’d rather use on a team level than an individual one, but since 1986, Lockett’s is the highest for any wide receiver. Out of context, 13.8 yards per target [total] doesn’t sound special. Well, have some context then: going back to 1992, Lockett’s average was the highest ever with a minimum of 60 targets.”

A large part of Lockett’s current success is that he clearly never feels like he’s made it in the league. There’s constant drive for him to improve as a player. “Some people in the league they only know I play one position and to me that’s the fastest way to be out. And so I want to be able to master every single thing,” Lockett told reporters at his mini-camp press conference.

Lockett’s higher slot rate in a post-Baldwin world should therefore be a smooth process for the former Kansas State receiver. He repeatedly talked about a “tool set” and emphasized the importance of being able to do multiple thing: “The biggest thing that I was taught growing up, it’s all about value. And the more that you could be able to do, the harder it is for people to get rid of you.”

How is the slot different?

Lockett summarized the differences well. The slot is an area with greater space and often more traffic. There is often a two-way go for the offensive player and leverage choices become even more important.

“Obviously I wasn’t in the slot a lot during practice, so me going in the slot you have just different types of route. Whether you’re running across the middle, whether you’re running just shallow or whether you’re running deeper. Whatever the case may be, you’re running against different types of defenders, sometimes you get double, sometimes you get bracketed, sometimes it’s harder to be able to see the defense whenever you’re in the slot because you’re used to playing in the outside and it’s easier to see the whole field. So being able to just understand how to approach my whole entire game in the slot, while I’m in there, allows me to be able to further my game because now I have to pick up on what the defense is doing quicker, I have to pick up on different ways to run slot routes quicker.

Baldwin the protector

Sure, there are double-coverages and brackets attributed to a team’s best receiver—though it’s hard to recall Seattle’s offense receiving that treatment. As alluded to, Lockett was protected to an extent by Baldwin’s talent in other ways. Rather than Baldwin commanding multiple defenders, he instead frequently kept Lockett clean from press coverage.

When in the slot, Lockett spent time aligned behind Baldwin, often running the shallower route. The result was Baldwin facing more press.

Baldwin’s route was often the decoy in two-route downfield combinations. Lockett would be the man off the line of scrimmage, in more of a “flanker” or “z” role when there were two receivers out there. This enabled Seattle to shift and motion Lockett pre-snap.

Slot burning

Lockett did get opportunities to burn deep from the slot on post and vertical routes.

Quick separation?

However, while Lockett is a talented route runner, he has never been a quick-to-separate type of receiver. Instead, his route-running appears to be instinctual with a heavy dosage of explosion. Lockett often separates super late with subtle pushes before the catch and a late showing of the hands. Combined with fantastic deep ball tracking, Lockett excels at over-the-shoulder catches. His 2017 season, coming off a broken leg, sticks in the mind as Lockett winning deep with these traits rather than raw speed.

Baldwin excelled at quick separation routes from the slot that allow for creative releases. These releases were integral to the effective red-zone passing concepts that Russell Wilson enjoyed. Someone needs to step up to fill this void. It would also help satisfy the need for better Yards After Catch opportunities plus intermediate passing. A banged-up Baldwin dramatically impacted this situation.

Baldwin will have certainly taught Lockett a thing or two on slot releases. Lockett is probably still asking for bits of advice. The NFL Gamepass Doug Baldwin clinic is essential viewing for slot play.

Lockett himself is clearly aware it’s this aspect of slot receiver play that he must work on. He spoke of the need to “work on being uncomfortable,” and his hoops skills will surely prove useful.

“Some routes I haven’t really got to run like that, because I wasn’t in the slot as much,” Lockett elaborated. “Every day I’m developing different types of plans. Understanding different ways to run different types of routes. Seeing if it works in practice and some of the routes I did today worked in practice.” Having a plan at the line of scrimmage is crucial. Adjusting that from outside to the slot is where the bulk of Lockett’s offseason work will be focused.

“Now I got to be able to work on footwork when I’m in the slot, routes in the slot is way different to running routes on the outside, you gotta use different releases. You get to be able to do a little more free-wheel type stuff. But you got different places that you have to be at a particular amount of time.”

“If I gotta go run a 5 yard route, a 10 yard route, a 20 yard route, I’m gonna figure out what it is that I need to do to set the defender up so I can be able to get open and put Russ in the best situation to be able to throw a completion.”

“I’ve been learning what I need to do to be able to set people up to catch the ball. How I want to catch it.”

Lockett’s 2019

Lockett is the clear #1, as much as he disregards the numbering of receivers. The addition of D.K. Metcalf and other veterans on the roster look more like outside, X receivers, so Lockett’s slot numbers will be more around 60%-70%. In fact, in a lot of instances we will likely see Lockett’s alignment—slot or outside—change depending on the opposing defender or coverage. Seattle can pick and choose what match-up they want Lockett to face.

Regression is near-certain in most of his statistics, as John Fraley wrote. On the other hand, Lockett’s number of targets will almost certainly rise. If he can master the quick separation, possession-style releases and routes from the slot, Lockett should improve upon his touchdown numbers and total yardage. (57 receptions, 965 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018) Better figures would near All-Pro territory.

If Lockett struggles with that aspect of slot play though, the Seahawks will utilize him in his best role—as a big-time playmaker who has excellent deep separation skills. Slot duty when crafty, freelance releases are required would then fall to Keenan Reynolds or John Ursua—assuming they can prove themselves.

If that assumption falls short, Seattle will have no short passing game option other than getting their tight ends more involved with a higher employment of 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends and 2 wide receivers). The Seahawks loved 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end and 3 wide receivers) in 2018, using it at a 4% higher rate than the league average. They would hope it’s still a feasible strategy.

For now, though, in the giddy hopes and dreams of the offseason, why can’t Tyler Lockett better his game once more? Now a veteran of the NFL, you’d be a fool to bet against his work ethic and dedication to football. “I’m just ready for whatever,” proclaimed Seattle’s outside AND slot receiver.