When the Associated Press announced NFL All-Pro teams Friday, there was a surprising response from some quarters of Seahawks Twitter. Instead of lamenting the players who didn’t make the team, or that Earl Thomas was chosen second team instead of first (besides noted 12 Bill Barnwell), fans instead took some issue with the idea that Tyler Lockett made All-Pro second team as a kick returner.
TYLER LOCKETT SHOULDNT BE AN ALL PRO
— beat valley (@beat_valley) January 5, 2018
The replies to Lars’ tweet suggest plenty of Seahawks fans agree with him. So they were surely surprised when I pointed out that according to Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA, the Seahawks ranked third in the NFL in kick return value behind the L.A. Rams (whose returner Pharoh Cooper was chosen first team All-Pro ahead of Lockett) and the Baltimore Ravens (who had no individual player with more than 13 kick returns), making Lockett a logical selection.
The criticism of Lockett stems largely from his willingness to bring the ball out of the end zone rather than simply taking a touchback, which puts the ball at the 25 — generally a favorable result. (As I’ve noted in the past, I suspect Seahawks coaches want Lockett to bring the ball out; it’s hard to imagine he’s repeatedly defying their wishes.) And since Football Outsiders doesn’t exactly make clear how DVOA handles touchbacks, which were far less valuable back when it was introduced (back then, they took the ball only to the 20), I decided to do some additional research with the help of the invaluable Pro Football Reference play-by-play database.
Let’s start with a number of places where Seahawks fans are spot on. First, Lockett did tend to take the ball out of the end zone more than most returners. Just 44.6 percent of opponent kickoffs this season resulted in touchbacks, the league’s third-lowest rate behind the Kansas City Chiefs (34.8 percent) and Chicago Bears (44.0 percent). And while that owes partially to teams relatively rarely kicking the ball into the end zone against the Seahawks, Lockett returned 34 percent of kicks into the end zone, far higher than the league average of 23.4 percent.
Additionally, Seahawks fans are right that touchbacks are preferable to bringing out of the end zone. That’s true both generally and for the Seahawks specifically. The average kick into the end zone is returned short of the 23 yard line, much less favorable than getting the ball at the 25. And even with Lockett’s noted ability as a kick returner, he made it to the 25 just five times out of the 17 he brought it out of the end zone, reaching the 23 on average.
However, Lockett more than made up for it with his returns of kicks that never reached the end zone. Twelve of those 17 kicks saw Lockett at least reach the 25, and his average return (factoring in a touchdown against the Cardinals in last Sunday’s season finale as going to the 100 yard line) reached the 31.
To quantify Lockett’s value as a kick returner, we can turn to Pro Football Reference’s expected points added (EPA) model. That shows a touchback as worth 0.6 points to the returning team. The Seahawks’ average return* was worth 0.8 points, the league’s second-highest rate behind the Ravens (1.1). And since that rate is much higher than a touchback, the Seahawks are still number two in the league when we consider the outcome of all kickoffs. (In fact, since Baltimore had relatively more touchbacks, the Seahawks close much of the ground between the two teams.)
As compared to the average return, this model shows the Seahawks adding 12.3 points this season on kickoff returns, in the same ballpark of Football Outsiders’ estimate of 8.1 points better than league average. One notable difference between the two is that EPA shows the Seahawks ahead of the Rams, largely because Cooper lost a fumble on a kickoff and Lockett did not have a fumble all season.
So if anything, there’s actually a case to be made that Lockett belonged on the All-Pro first team as a returner. As frustrating as it might be to see Lockett come out of the end zone and be tackled short of the 25 — a strategy that’s still worth revisiting by Seahawks coaches this offseason — there’s no question he was one of the league’s best returners this season.
* Note that I switched here to saying the Seahawks from Lockett. That’s because this total also includes four kickoffs where the opponent kicked short to a blocker — three times to Luke Willson and once to Ethan Pocic. Those four kicks resulted in an average start at the 32 yard line. While Lockett didn’t actually handle the ball, I’d still credit these returns to him because it was the threat he poses that compelled teams to kick short. (Before beginning my analysis, I took out any squibs or onside kicks that would throw off the data.)
Also note that while it seemed like the Seahawks had a ton of return penalties that put them in a hole starting drives, those were largely on punt returns (10 penalties). The Seahawks committed just two penalties during kick returns.