JOHN CLAYTON

NFL’s kickoff concerns could be bad news for Tyler Lockett, Seahawks

Jun 24, 2016, 6:50 AM | Updated: Jul 22, 2016, 1:45 pm
Seattle had the second-best field position following kickoffs in the NFL last season thanks to Tyler Lockett and his 25.8-yard average per return. (AP)
(AP)

On Monday, the NFL held a conference call with all 32 special-teams coaches. The subject involved the future of kickoffs and other dangers on special-teams plays.

Looking ahead, the NFL might eliminate the kickoff over fear of concussions. In 2011, the league moved the kickoff from the 30- to the 35-yard line with the hopes of cutting down the number of returns and the number of concussions. Returned kicks dropped from 48 percent in 2013 to 47 percent in 2014 to 41.1 percent last year.

That wasn’t enough, so the NFL is looking for more ways to make kickoffs a less dangerous play, and elimination of the kickoff return remains on the horizon as early as next year or in the coming years.

The impact on the Seahawks would be significant. Tyler Lockett earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and an All-Pro selection as a returner last year. He’s one of the most exciting returners in the game. But if kickoffs are eliminated, it would be a major setback for the Seahawks.

Thanks to Lockett, the Seahawks trailed only Minnesota in field position after kickoffs last season. Thanks to Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings’ average drive after kickoffs started at the 25. For the Seahawks, it was the 23.1.

Understand the significance of where a drive starts. Based on data from the last three years, if a team starts a drive at its 21-yard line, it has a 16.6 percent chance of getting a touchdown and a 10.1 percent chance of getting a field goal. If a drive starts at the 25, the odds jump to 19.1 percent for touchdowns and 12.3 percent for field goals.

Lockett averaged 25.8 yards per kickoff return as a rookie. He returned one kickoff for a touchdown and six others to between the 30- and 40-yard lines. With that type of field position, all Russell Wilson needs to do is manage a drive with three or four first downs to get into field-goal range.

Pete Carroll knows the importance of field position after kickoffs. He traded for Leon Washington in 2010 and he was a major asset in the kick-start of this franchise. Washington made one trip to the Pro Bowl as a returner. In 2010, the Seahawks’ average drive started at the 30.

One rule change will create an interesting challenge for special-teams coaches. Owners voted this offseason to move touchbacks from the 20 up to the 25. The thought was it would encourage more coaches to instruct returners to accept the touchback on kicks well into the end zone instead grabbing the ball 7 or 8 yards deep and needing a 32- or 33-yard to get the ball to the 25.

That creates an interesting decision for Seahawks opponents. Do they go for the touchback in order to take Lockett out of the play or do they go for a high “mortar”’ kick that lands inside the 5 and hope they can tackle him inside the 10?

According to the NFL, 41 concussions occurred on kickoffs from the start of the preseason through the Super Bowl over the last three years. As a whole, concussions were at the highest level last year since the league intensified its counts four years ago. Part of the increase is more concussions are being detected and reported.

Lockett gives the Seahawks a significant edge because of his return ability, but that could be neutralized if the NFL kicks the kickoff out of the league.

Want more John Clayton? Listen on-demand to his weekday and Saturday shows as well as his “Cold Hard Facts” and “Clayton’s Morning Drive” segments on 710 ESPN Seattle. Also, check out his all-new “Schooled” podcast and look for his columns twice a week on 710Sports.com.

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