(Editor's note: This has been promoted to the front page)
The Incredible Tyler Lockett and his Peculiar Lack of Yards After Catch
I love Tyler Lockett. I was excited when the Seahawks drafted him, and I was even more excited after seeing him house a 103-yard kickoff in his first game as a pro. Viewed by many as a return specialist when Seattle picked him 69th overall in 2015, hopes were high that he would be the most electric return man in the Emerald city since Leon Washington. And he exceeded expectations. Not only did he excel in the return game, he proved to be invaluable as a receiver. His 4.4 speed showed up on the field in a big way.
Only five receivers ran faster at the 2015 combine: Chris Conley, Kevin White, Phillip Dorsett, JJ Nelson, and Donatella Luckett. Lockett performed better than all of these guys in the 20-yard shuttle and better than all but Dorsett in the 3-cone drill. And it goes without saying that he has had the best career of all of these players, and it's not even close. NO-E has legit game speed, and it shows up on the field. He is a crafty, brilliant route runner who has hands like an octopus covered in stick-em.
But this article isn't about how incredible Tyler Lockett is. This is about where he is curiously lacking: yards after the catch. For as shifty as he is a route runner, rarely has this translated into creating yards once he has the ball in his hands. This is not entirely surprising, as post-reception yards have not been a feature of the Seahawks offense for some time. They ranked 26th, 23rd, and 24th during the Schottenheimer-era.
So is this simply a product of the offensive scheme? That would make some sense, as Schottenheimer's playbook was predicated around vertical passing and eating up chunks through the air as opposed to focusing on quick, horizontal routes and catch-and-run patterns. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Football Outsiders produced a more in-depth measure of this statistic in the form of YAC+.
Per Football Outsiders: "YAC+ is similar to plus-minus: it estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations."
While the 2020 YAC+ stats are not yet available, FO has the data for 2018 and 2019. Below are Tyler Lockett's numbers for these two seasons, along with the raw data for 2020.
Lockett's rankings of 73rd and 64th in 2018 and 2019 are... not great. I think we can fairly speculate that his rankings will not be much better for 2020.
Average Depth of Target is another potential confound; players who tend to catch shorter passes may be expected to turn these up field more frequently than big-play targets. For example, in 2019, Cooper Kupp had an average DOT of only 7.3, but turned this into the 10th best YAC+ in the NFL. However, contrary to this theory, many players who ranked in the top 20 of this metric also ranked above or near Lockett's 12.7 DOT in 2019. DK Metcalf's college teammate AJ Brown, who ranked first overall, had an average DOT of 13.2, and still maintained an exceptional 4.4 YAC+, a full two yards better than the next leading receiver, Deebo Samuel, and nearly two yards better than any receiver since 2015. Furthermore, Lockett's DOT plunged to 9.7 in 2020, and he posted his lowest YAC per reception (3.3) since 2018.
So where does Russell Wilson factor into this? Is there a chance that Russ is not setting his receivers up for success? That is possible, as well. Indeed, looking at Wilson's stats since Lockett's rookie season, he has only ranked as high as 10th in YAC+ for QBs once (2015), and has ranked near the bottom in every season since. Looking specifically at the last three years:
Looking again at depth of target, the expectation might be that quarterbacks who average higher DOT might rank lower on YAC than dink-and-dunk passers. But, similar to what we observed above, the dispersal seems to be fairly even. That is, many quarterbacks who ranked near or above Wilson in average DOT also ranked above him in YAC+. In 2019, Wilson ranked 6th overall in DOT, and every QB who ranked above him also ranked better in YAC+.
Extending this train of thought, between 2015 and 2019, the Hawks have only had three non-QB players rank in the top 20 in YAC+ for their respective positions -- Luke Willson and Doug Baldwin in 2015, and Jimmy Graham in 2016. In this timeframe, they have had twelve players rank in the bottom 20. While the Seahawks weren't great at getting YAC under Bevell, they were even worse under Schottenheimer. This may speak to Pete Carroll's priorities and offensive propensities as well. Of note, the Rams have had eight players ranked in the top 20 since 2017: Sammy Watkins, Gerald Everett, and Todd Gurley in 2017; Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee, and Todd Gurley in 2018; and Tyler Higbee in 2019, with Cooper Kupp ranking top 20 in all three seasons.
I don't think that Brian Schottenheimer and/or Pete Carroll's offense was/is designed with YAC as the top priority, but I also don't think any coach or coordinator wants to intentionally limit their players in this regard, either. However, there are other ways to measure how successful a player is at their craft. For example, looking at individual DVOA and DYAR for receivers, Seattle has performed quite well. Turning our focus back to Tyler Lockett, specifically, his impressive DYAR and DVOA rankings can be seen below:
These numbers are indicative of how well Tyler Lockett has really performed over the last three years. For comparison, no Rams receiver has surpassed him in either DYAR or DVOA in any of these seasons. This includes the invaluable Cooper Kupp, of whom I am admittedly a huge fan (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he played for the Eastern Eagles and I was fortunate enough to be in the stands to see him play in his final game as an Eag while home visiting family... I couldn't be happier to see him succeed in the NFL, I just wish it was for any team other than the Rams).
Given Lockett's success as a receiver, along with his unique shiftiness and legitimate speed, I have wanted to explore this topic for a while: Why has he been so lacking in yards after the catch? NO-E is a tough individual -- as an undersized receiver in the NFL, he doesn't shy away from contact if it means not securing the catch. I can't count the number of times I have watched him take a huge, heart-stopping hit, only to pop up, toss the ball to the refs, and jog back to the huddle. He is the consummate professional in this regard. In a league filled with celebratory dances and showmanship, Tyler Lockett is far more Larry Fitzgerald than Terrell Owens. Which is great, the Seahawks have DK Metcalf to commandeer the cameras. Tyler is the Ice to Metcalf's Fire, the stone cold playmaker who shies away from the spotlight but not from the big hit.
I am very hopeful that Tyler Lockett will be in the Seahawks long-term plans, this season and beyond. This being said, I do feel like I have seen Lockett go to the ground, untouched, to secure catches more often than I would expect for someone with his unique skill-set. I could be wrong -- this is simply an eye-test, gut feeling that I get from having watched him play every game of his professional career. And, if true, it could be related to any of the factors mentioned above: style of offense, QB play, propensity to value making the catch over turning up field, or something else entirely. I would never insinuate that it is from lack of toughness, though. This has left me wondering if this is likely to change with the implementation of a new scheme in the coming season.
I am curious to see what impact Shane Waldron will have on Lockett in 2021. I can't imagine any coordinator not wanting to find a place in their system for someone of his caliber. But '21 is a contract year, and if Waldron does, in fact, field an offense that resembles what we've seen from the Rams in the last few years, the question likely won't be about Lockett's talent, but rather if he will continue to be a good fit at his current, and more importantly, future price tag.
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