Tyler Lockett remembers one of his favorite catches this year like it was yesterday.
It was the second quarter of Kansas State’s 31-30 win at Oklahoma, and Jake Waters’ pass was soaring high over the middle as Lockett ran a post route. The corner was lurking nearby, and the safety was bearing down on him.
Lockett, who checked in at 5-foot- 9 and 181 pounds before his first practice of Senior Bowl week Tuesday, vaulted high in the air anyway, absorbed the blow from the safety and hauled in the pass for a 36-yard catch.
“Sacrifice,” Lockett said. “Sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice your body to do what’s best for the team. They threw the post, I jumped up in the air, and I could have gotten knocked out. But that’s just the chance you’ve got to take. You don’t want to get knocked out, but the biggest thing is, you’ve got to make a play.
“You know, people expect you to catch the ball. If there’s five people on me or three people grabbing me I still expect to catch the ball. I just expect more out of myself than others may.”
But after his ridiculously prolific senior campaign, in which he caught 106 passes for 1,515 yards and 11 touchdowns and also returned 21 punts for 402 yards (a 19.1 average) and two touchdowns, others’ expectations for Lockett — the son of a former NFL player — might be higher than he thinks as he prepares for the 2015 NFL Draft.
“Tyler is good,” NFL.com draft analyst Bucky Brooks said. “Tyler obviously has legacy and bloodlines and pedigree — his dad, obviously, was a really good player in Kansas City and beyond, and you can tell that in Tyler’s play. He’s very polished, he’s very advanced in terms of how he plays the game and understands how to do the little things to get open.”
Lockett is currently ranked as the draft’s No. 69 overall player, according to CBSSports.com, and ESPN.com’s No. 85 overall player. If those hold after this week, that puts him squarely in the discussion of being a second, third or fourth round pick.
“I thought he was very good, very solid,” Brooks said of Lockett’s first practice Tuesday.
Lockett credits his position coach, Andre Coleman, for teaching him the fundamentals and technique he’s needed to thrive in college, and his dad, Kevin — a second-round pick of the Chiefs in 1997 — for reinforcing the importance of it on the next level.
“Even in college, my dad told me it’s all about route running when you get to the league,” Lockett said. “He said people that run routes stay in the league a lot longer, and if you watch, it’s easy to see.”
Lockett proceeded to cite a similarly-sized player, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, as an example of an NFL player who has been able to thrive due to the crispness of his routes.
“When they put a man over the top or they double team me or whatever, I had to learn how to get open,” Lockett said of his college days. “At Kansas State, if we were struggling, they might start leaning on me and the quarterback might start leaning on me, so if I don’t get open, I don’t know what we’re going to do. I had to learn how to get open and learn how to win regardless of the coverage.”
But for all his production and polish as a receiver, Lockett is not without his weaknesses. He spent most of his first practice in the slot, where he primarily played his first two years at Kansas State, likely because of his size. There’s some thought that might be the best position for him, since smaller guys sometimes have difficulty defeating press coverage on the outside.
“He worries me a little bit,” CBSSports.com draft analyst Rob Rang said. “He’s a tough guy for his size, but I don’t know if he’s a tough guy, if he’s gonna be able to handle the physicality in the NFL as far as being a full-time player. I’ve seen him drop his share of passes. Now, obviously when you throw to somebody that much there will be drops.
“But I view him, probably, as a fourth-round type of guy and somebody that can be very successful in the NFL but has to have some talent around him. I don’t believe he is a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. So then you’re talking about a slot guy, and you’ve got to be really tough to be in that role.”
Lockett, however, is not concerned about about his ability to defeat press coverage and win contested balls at the NFL level.
“I mean, I went against it every single game,” Lockett said. “It wasn’t anything new. I went against it, I won … teams pressed me about 70 or 80 times a game ... every play I was getting pressed. Of course, I can always get better at it. But I think I did a good job.”
Lockett said he understands why teams tried to press him so much though.
“They understand that if they can’t get their hands on me, then they’re in trouble,” Lockett said. “So they try to get their hands on me to slow me down, grab me, try to get as physical as possible. They think that’s the only way they can guard me.”
So how did he beat them anyway?
“Feet,” Lockett said. “It’s all about the footwork in the NFL. It’s all about footwork in college … if I’m going outside, I have to make them think I’m going inside.”
Brooks, however, said learning how to beat the jam at the NFL level is a challenge for all players, and he looked forward to seeing how Lockett fared the rest of the week.
“He’ll get an opportunity to show his stuff in one-on-ones,” Brooks said. “The thing that you know is he can go inside in the slot, and he understands working in tight quarters because his dad did it. So when I look at his game, his game will translate very well to the pros, and I think you have to understand what it is — he’s tough enough to be a returner and he’s talented enough to be a receiver.”
Lockett, obviously, agrees.
“I don’t even think I’ve reached my full potential yet as a returner or receiver,” Lockett said. “I think there’s still a lot I can accomplish and a lot I can still learn.”
But he also thinks his college tape showed plenty, namely that he can get open and become a reliable target for his next quarterback because of his willingness to make the tough catch — just like he did for Waters against Oklahoma this year — no matter the level.
“When you get open, it makes it easier for your quarterback,” Lockett said. “My quarterback threw me the ball in places he probably normally wouldn’t have just because he had so much confidence in me. He trusted I would make the play.”
And if that next quarterback were, say, in same city that drafted his father?
“I don’t mind it at all,” Lockett said. “I went to the same middle school as my dad and uncle; I went to the same high school as my dad and uncle; I went to the same college as my dad and uncle, so it’s nothing new to me.
“Kansas City’s a great place … my dad lives in Kansas City, so when I go visit him I’m already familiar with everything. I’ve been to the Chiefs games before because he played there. So honestly, all I need is an opportunity. And if the Chiefs give me the opportunity, I’ll run with it and give it my best shot.”