RENTON — There was a noticeable lack of Tyler Lockett in the Seattle Seahawks’ return game during the preseason.
Unlike last preseason, when the then-rookie Lockett announced himself in electric fashion by returning both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns, this preseason was a quiet one on the return front. There were no touchdowns, few bursts of speed, few jukes that left opposing defenders grasping at air. Indeed, as often as not Lockett wasn’t even sent back to field the kicks.
But fear not, Seahawks fans. Lockett’s usage during the preseason isn’t an indication of a diminished role in the return game.
Indeed, if anyone should be afraid, it’s opposing coverage units. That’s because Lockett believes he can be even better than he was during his stellar rookie campaign, when he was named to the Pro Bowl as a returner.
“Yeah, making the Pro Bowl is big, but I wasn’t at my best the whole entire season at returner,” Lockett said. “Just because I exceeded other people’s expectations doesn’t mean I even came close to mine.”
Lockett was a return sensation in his rookie season. Just the second time he touched the ball in an NFL regular season game he returned a punt for a 57-yard touchdown. In his third game he took a kickoff 105 yards to the house for a TD. He finished the season averaging 25.8 yards on 33 kickoff returns and 9.5 yards on 40 punt returns, and his 1,231 yards as a returner led the NFL.
And Lockett thinks he wasn’t at his best?
“It’s one thing to be comfortable to the level where the coaches are comfortable with having you there, and it’s another place of being comfortable for your own self,” Lockett said. “Just because I can do what other people want me to be able to do at the level they want me to play at, it doesn’t mean I’m playing at my best level. For me, I’m trying to find it. I found it when I was in high school, I found it when I was in college, and it takes time to find it. I’m starting to find it while I’m here.”
Those are frightening words for opposing coverage units, and Lockett is doing everything he can to back up his words. Seahawks special teams coach Brian Schneider praised Lockett’s work ethic with regards to improving his return game, saying Lockett is the first player on the field and the last one off it every day at practice. Therefore, the possibility Lockett can be even better as a returner is legitimate.
“What he’s improved on is when they sky kick, acting like he’s fielding the ball, and also on decisions when to field the ball and when not,” Schneider said.
“How he prepares mentally and physically, I don’t know how it can get much better than he came in here as doing,” Schneider added. “He just consistently does that.”
But there may have been those wondering whether Lockett would see his role in the return game reduced this season. Lockett saw his involvement in Seattle’s offense increase as last season progressed, his speed at receiver providing the Seahawks the kind of deep threat they haven’t had in years. Lockett finished the season with 51 catches for 664 yards and six touchdowns, with most of that production coming in Seattle’s final seven games.
Then this preseason Lockett was often nowhere to be found when it was time to return kicks. He had just two of Seattle’s 10 kickoff returns (24.5 yards per return) and just three of the Seahawks’ 11 punt returns (5.7 yards per return), with the likes of Troymaine Pope and Montario Hunter getting more chances than Lockett. Was it an indication Lockett was being saved for the offense?
However, Pope and Hunter are no longer on Seattle’s roster, and Schneider put to rest the thoughts of Lockett being used less on returns.
“I don’t think his role is going to change,” Schneider said. “He’s a finely tuned and conditioned athlete. … Unless something changes with coach (Pete) Carroll, he’s going to keep doing his duties.
“(During the preseason) you want to see other guys,” Schneider added. “You want to see other guys on the team, and we know what (Lockett) can do. We’re very confident and comfortable with what he can do.”
Schneider said that the only times he expects Lockett not to be the primary returner is if he needs a blow, and as far as Lockett is concerned that scenario doesn’t exist.
“I did the same thing at Kansas State,” Lockett said. “I played every single play on offense, I played punt, I played kickoff return, I played punt return. I don’t care what they have me doing and how much I have to do. Nothing compares to the long practices we had at K-State and how much running we did. So no matter how much they have me doing here it won’t compare.
“I never get tired.”
Lockett may face more obstacles as a returner this season. The NFL changed its kickoff rule this year, with touchbacks coming out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20, and no one yet knows how that will affect teams’ strategies. Opponents were already kicking the ball away from Lockett last season, and he can expect more of that treatment this season.
But Seattle’s plan will once again be for Lockett to touch the ball as much as possible in the return game, and that can only cause more fear and trembling for the opposition.
For more on the Seattle sports scene, check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at www.heraldnet.com/tag/seattle-sidelines, or follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.