Futures: Kansas State WR Tyler Lockett
By Matt Waldman
I remember reading about Kansas State wide receiver Kevin Lockett as one of Mel Kiper's underrated players in a draft guide from 1997. The second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs had a career with four teams, amassing eight starts, 130 catches, 1,738 yards, eight touchdowns, and seven fumbles. Although not a storied NFL career, any player who earns a contract for almost seven seasons has achieved an impressive accomplishment.
Lockett's career is a reminder that the NFL Draft is not only about picking stars. No matter how much broadcast and print media (understandably) wants to add this corporate-influenced, revenue-generating pixie dust to the process, most quality teams are comprised of role players.
Fast-forward 17 years to Kansas State, and there's now a second-generation Lockett lighting up Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan. Tyler Lockett, a return specialist and receiver, has NFL potential. Blessed with more speed than his father, Tyler is 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, which is an inch shorter and 11 pounds lighter than his father's listed NFL size.
Despite the protests of those who engage in the discouraged practice of statistically over-fitting height/weight data to determine the viability of NFL receiver prospects, Lockett's dimensions fall within an acceptable and productive pro receiver archetype. Antonio Brown, DeSean Jackson, Marvin Harrison, Ernest Givins, Emmanuel Sanders, Gary Clark, Steve Largent, Mark Clayton, and Isaac Bruce were all fine weapons who weighed less than 190 pounds.
What matters most is how well Lockett uses his athleticism to perform on the field. In this respect, the Kansas State Wildcat has the advantage of being a good return specialist. Special teams play is a valuable skill for a player to earn an extended audition with a team while he earns a foothold as a professional. This is a route that receivers like Brown, Givins, and Jackson -- as well as other receivers not in this archetype such as Hines Ward, Brandon Lloyd, and Tim Brown -- took to establish themselves as NFL starters.
The point of this article is not whether Lockett develops into a true contributor at wide receiver. It is to make the statement that desirable "projects" aren't always the ideal, unrefined, athletic specimens. There's a general perception that talent development is an instant recipe where the perfect athlete is the central ingredient awaiting coaches and veteran teammates to pour in the knowledge and stir.
Lockett may not have the height, weight, or speed of UNLV's Devante Davis -- a more popular prototype for the raw prospect at this position -- but the receiver displays enough potential, even during his mistakes, to consider him a player capable of developing into a starter. This week's Futures shows why many of Lockett's flaws are correctable and why many of his talents are desirable.
The Return Game: Where Lockett Will At First Earn a Paycheck
The characteristics that I value from a good return specialist are an even balance of patience and decisiveness, comfort with physical play, and creativity in tight spaces. Note that speed is not listed here, but two of these three qualities require some measure of quickness. LeGarrette Blount and Benny Cunningham are both productive on kick returns in the NFL, and neither possesses blazing speed.
Lockett is a 60-meter track athlete, but watch him at Kansas State and it's evident that the long speed is gravy. This 30-yard return where Lockett fields the ball at shin level outside the right hash at the Kansas State 10 is an illustration of the factors I mentioned above.
Watch the play again and note how Lockett begins the play working behind wall of four blockers. The ballcarrier presses the eventual running lane by maintaining a path outside his lead blocker, and this decision sets up two outside blocks. When Lockett reaches the closest outside blocker at the 19, he slips under that block while sticking behind his lead blocker to execute another press at the 24.
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These two moves are a display of a ballcarrier who knows how to run with patience while staying within the pace of the developing blocks at a higher rate of speed than a play-call from the line of scrimmage. Lockett also shows comfort with contact when he bumps into his lead blocker, who is engaged with a defender. There's a natural inclination for some runners to overreact to the contact, but Lockett doesn't do anything wild to maintain his balance.
Lockett uses an economical spin to work through the wrap attempt of a defender coming over the top at the 28, leaving the defender on the ground at the 30 as he works to the numbers of the flat. A second spin at the 35 allows Lockett to avoid a second defender and stumble to the 40.
Speed is nice to have, but Lockett's knowledge of his blocking scheme and how to manipulate it to his advantage is a more important skill. So is having a set of moves that don't disrupt the overall pace and path of his decisions when a defender disrupts the run. Although some of the most impressive returns of all time feature multiple reversals of field, the best return specialists try to maintain a downhill path as a rule. Lockett operates along this basic premise.
Fine Points to Winning Vertical Targets
One of the best things that Lockett does as a wide receiver is earning deep separation with the use of double moves. The most important part of selling a double move is the consistency of the story that the receiver tells with his stem and the first move. It isn't much different from the basic philosophy of a quarterback selling a play-action fake: The initial movement setting up the fake should look the same as any play without a fake.
Lockett is far from a perfect route-runner, but his double moves appear consistent with the current style of his normal route execution. This is why he's effective at selling this type of pattern. Here is a late-half touchdown reception on a post-corner route where Lockett fools the defensive back and earns the receiver at least three steps on a defender that begins the play 8 yards off the line of scrimmage.
The basis of the move is the stutter and turn to the inside, which sets up the second move to the corner. Isolate Lockett's technique to his break; he needs to learn to drop his hips lower to sell a hard break. However, the K-State receiver doesn't execute hard breaks as a route-runner at this stage of his career, and this first part of the double move is consistent with his play. The fact that Lockett performs this double move with fluid precision is good enough.
Lockett earns an accurate throw from his quarterback, making the catch with his palms up and trapping the ball to his body over his inside shoulder. Hand position is not a factor with this target, but it will be elsewhere. In contrast, veering too early to the outside will be an issue for Lockett on a much shorter route, but on this vertical pattern the receiver displays the appropriate sideline awareness not to execute his break too far to the boundary. He affords the quarterback room to make an accurate throw, which leads to an easier target.
As Lockett refines his route-running to incorporate harder breaks, he'll do the same with double moves. Here's a target with 13:23 left from the Kansas 2 that falls incomplete, but note how Lockett earns position and shields the defender from the ball.
Despite the cornerback playing 8 yards off the line, Lockett earns excellent separation deep because he baits the defender with a strong head fake to sell the slant. What's equally impressive is Lockett shifting his body to cut off the defender's path to make a play on the ball. The sooner a receiver shields the defender with his back, the more control he has to win the target.
This is a refined part of vertical route-running that Lockett displays. However, the next two plays are vertical routes that Lockett lacks the refined skill to finish.
The first is a double move that gets Lockett open in the first quarter. As the ball arrives near the opponents' 5, Lockett has at least two steps on the defensive back, but the trajectory of the target is too far ahead of the receiver's stride. Lockett has to lean and extend towards a pass that falls wide and between his hands.
It's convenient to say that the quarterback threw the ball too far -- and this is a factor -- but there was something Lockett could have done to make the catch. The replay shows that Lockett has enough distance on the defender to veer inside at the final stages of the ball's flight and attack the target, but he maintains a straight course.
Diving for the ball should be a last-gasp decision on a vertical route. When a receiver has position like Lockett, he should veer to meet the target. Breaking inside on this pass will require Lockett to sacrifice some depth and the adjusted angle would force the receiver to leap skyward for the ball. This vertically-based leap is preferable because the receiver has a chance to return to earth on his feet instead of a full-extension dive parallel to the ground.
Lockett's choice is one of the most difficult ways to catch a football, and it was unnecessary. I actually graded this effort as a drop based on the receiver's route and not a missed target by the quarterback.
Attacking the football is a vital part to winning vertical targets. This slant-and-go with 10:21 in the half puts Lockett in position to make a play over the top of the defensive back.
The receiver spins towards the target at the 15, but he fails to extend his arms to the ball. Lockett uses an underhand technique despite having a defender facing the target ahead of him. If a receiver has to leap for the target and he has a defender in this position, then reaching for the target will lessen the chances of the defender using his hands to impede the catch.
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In theory, Lockett should be high-pointing the ball with his arms extended over his head and then turn from the defensive back as he secures the ball to his body. Lockett's actual attempt is too passive and it gives the defender a chance to make a play on the ball.
The defender hits Lockett's forearm during the act of the receiver's underhanded catch and the contact alters Lockett's hand position. The ball bounces off Lockett's right hand and then rebounds off the receiver's chest. With the correct technique, Lockett probably catches this ball and turns up field.
Although this is a wasted opportunity due to Lockett's passive behavior, neither this play nor the play before is a knockout factor when it comes to Lockett's NFL potential. The techniques Lockett must learn are coachable.
More Hands Technique Issues
This 2013 contest takes place on the cold plains of Kansas and the weather makes the ball slicker and harder. Without sound hands technique, a pass that is otherwise catchable will slide through the grip of receivers or rebound off their hands. Lockett's hands appear proportionate to his size, which means he'll need to develop excellent form if he wants his game to have professional grade consistency regardless of weather conditions.
Lockett double-caught a few passes and kicks in this game. This reception on a slant is a display of Lockett's ability to make plays against physical coverage, but it's also an example of a double-catch.
The end zone angle shows Lockett extending for the ball above his head. This is a positive sign considering that the first three catches in this analysis are receptions using underhand technique. The face Lockett can attack the ball and display technique used on high-point situations reinforces that the mistake he made with a passive attempt on the ball is a teachable moment.
The next replay angle, which is a better close-up of Lockett's catch, reveals that the receiver makes the reception with his fingers, but the size of Lockett's hands forces him to shift the ball while retracting it to his body.
The ball travels through Lockett's hands on this fourth-quarter hitch. The slickness of a cold ball could be a factor here, but Lockett is a hair late getting his hands up. What is more difficult to see -- even at 25 percent speed -- is whether the ball bounces off his palms first, or through his fingertips.
Based on the ball's trajectory after contact with Lockett's hands, it appears that the receiver made initial contact with the fingers, which is most desirable. However there is concern that Lockett's hands aren't large enough to make consistent grabs with the fingers first. If he has to cushion the ball with too much of his palms, passes are more likely to rebound off his hands. This will increase the likelihood of double-catch situations, and likely more drops.
Even Lockett's 90-yard touchdown reception with 3:53 in the half on a deep post is a display of a ball shifting in his hands at the catch point. Lockett begins the play with good use of his hands. After a strong outside jab step at the top of his stem, he uses his outside arm to come over the top of the defender's forearm as he worked across the middle.
Note that the ball hits Lockett's palms and shifts around. This play alone isn't a big deal. However, within the context of the other receptions in this game where the ball moves around, it's worth noting.
Release Depth: A Common Route Ailment
From DeVante Parker to Kevin White, even the top college prospects have a natural inclination to break too far outside or inside during the initial release from the line of scrimmage on short and intermediate routes.
This third-down route in the red zone with 7:36 left is a good example of Lockett displaying the right kind of footwork, but not with the depth where he gets into the defender's body. Working closer to the defender's body off the release prevents Lockett from breaking outside too early.
The later Locket veers to the outside, the less likely the corner recovers to the area where the quarterback places the ball. Lockett's early veer outside to avoid working into the body of the defender creates a situation where Lockett forces a target placement at his back shoulder. The receiver now has to open his torso towards the trailing defender, which increases the defender's chances of making a play on the ball.
Fortunately, the defender commits pass interference, but it was a debatable penalty and a receiver shouldn't be relying on this kind of call as the outcome of a route. Lockett -- like most college receivers -- have to develop the skills (and the confidence in these skills) to release deep into the defender's frame and use his hands to feet to stack and shed the opponent and create late separation. This helps the receiver shield the defender from the ball while encouraging more optimal ball placement from the quarterback for an easier catch.
Antonio Brown was a raw receiver to begin his career who learned the fine points of what the Steelers offense demanded of him by the summer of his second season. Lockett isn't as talented a ballcarrier as Brown, but he has the vision and rugged mindset to do good work after the catch. It's a matter of refining a lot of little things with a team that is willing to give Lockett and opportunity beyond special teams.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.
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