Heading into his senior season at Kansas State, Tyler Lockett decided to set his sights on the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the top receiver in college football each year.
Setting that type of tangible, results-based goal, and the way it left him feeling during the ensuing practice, led to something of an epiphany for Lockett.
"When I went out there, that was the hardest practice for me mentally, because I told myself nothing was good enough," Lockett recalled this summer. "At that moment, I was like, 'Nah, we're just going to play free.'"
Playing free helped Lockett become an All-Big 12 receiver and a consensus All-American return specialist as a senior, and it helped him become a third-round pick of the Seahawks in 2015. That approach has since helped Lockett become an All-Pro returner in the NFL, then later a No. 1 receiver and one of the most prolific pass catchers in franchise history, and this season, while playing in what he describes as "a good head space," Lockett is off to a torrid start, catching 12 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns through two games, giving him the second most receiving yards and tied for second most receiving touchdowns in the NFL.
If Lockett were to post another game with 100 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings this weekend, he would become just the fifth player to record 100 receiving yards and a touchdown in each of his first three games, joining a very impressive list of Randy Moss (2007, four games), Marvin Harrison (1999), Jerry Rice (1989) and Dwight Clark (1982). With touchdowns of 69 yards in Week 1 and 63 yards last week, Lockett is the fourth player since 1990 to record multiple touchdown catches of 60-plus yards in his team's first two games, joining Moss, Rice and Steve Smith Sr.
Yet none of those accomplishments are what is driving Lockett, who half-jokingly said the only difference this season compared to previous ones is "that everybody is starting to talk about me. I just want to chill, not be in front of the camera, and just do me."
The problem for Lockett is that just doing him has increasingly drawn attention as he has, over the course of the past three seasons, established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL with 239 catches for 3,076 yards and 28 touchdowns from 2018-2020, including a 2018 campaign in which Russell Wilson had a perfect passer rating when targeting Lockett for an entire season, and a 2020 season in which Lockett set a franchise record with 100 receptions.
Throughout his career, from his early days as an All-Pro returner to the gruesome leg injury late in his second season, to his ascension to elite receiver status, Lockett has tackled mental health issues that he openly discusses, both in the media and also through his poetry.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't have mental breakdowns," Lockett said in April after signing his third contract with the Seahawks. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't have to work through anxiety attacks or panic attacks. We've all got thing we've got to work on. We're all trying to learn how to control ourselves and control our bodies, learn how to find healthy coping mechanisms, all these different types of things."
Dealing with mental health struggles is never a linear battle, but now more than ever, Lockett has been able to find contentment in football by keeping his focus on what matters most to him, which is not how many catches or touchdowns he finishes with, but rather the focus on being a man of faith, on being the type of person that his friends and family can be proud of, and on representing and trying to uplift people in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. With those type of goals driving him, Lockett is playing the best football of his life even as he tries to avoid thinking about the impressive on-field production.
"As soon as you start doing great, now you start to get social media attention, everybody is posting stuff about you and then you have stand up here and be able to talk," Lockett said. "It makes it harder to find that me time, to be able to get away from that stuff. All you see is, 'He broke this, he's doing that,' and you don't want to get caught up in that kind of stuff. You start to lose focus on what's important so that's why I try to do stuff. This year, I always dedicate to God, but this year I'm dedicating it to my hometown. I try to find different ways to dedicate games to people or things back in my hometown that means a lot to me. If I focus on this type of atmosphere where I'm at, it's hard to be satisfied. When I focus on back home, I'm more so appreciative and grateful, I've already won."
"I'm learning how to be content but I'm still hungry. I'm a healthier type of hungry, I'm not trying to eat this craziness. I'm trying to digest things in a much healthier way so I can enjoy this stuff for what it really is, rather than being like, 'Man, I need a good game to be happy'. I don't need a good year to feel good about myself, but that's what this stuff makes you want to have. I'm trying to learn how to be happy with myself because I choose me, God chooses me, my family chooses me, and my friends choose me. That's what helps me at least be in a good head space, otherwise I need y'all (in the media) to talk about me before I feel better about myself. You all do a great job, but I don't want my worth to be found in people, or things, or life, or my girlfriend. I want it to be found in God so that's what I focus on, because that's what is most important to me. It's a fight to do it because you want to tell everybody about yourself and how good you are. I'd rather just stay quiet and focus on God's grace rather than make this all about me."
As Lockett referenced, representing his hometown has taken on more significance this year. During the offseason, he created bookmarks, in partnership with Fulton Street Books & Coffee, Tulsa's only Black-owned bookstore, the Black History Collection, a series of bookmarks that have pictures of Lockett on one side and facts about Black history in Oklahoma on the other.
Prior to games this season, Lockett has worn custom cleats, one representing Waffle That, a Tulsa restaurant owned by a friend and former high school teammate, and previous week he wore shoes representing Carver Middle School, place where an assistant principal named Cletta Driver made what Lockett called a life altering decision when Lockett was facing discipline as an eighth grader. Rather than give Lockett a long suspension, Driver chose the option of a short suspension and counseling, the type of second chance not everyone receives, especially young Black men and teenagers.
"Sometimes we're quick to write people off when people make mistakes," Lockett said. "The truth about it is, we all made mistakes in our life. It's just the mistakes that we've made, some people have given us enough grace to be able overcome those things, to be something in this life. A lot of times we forget about the grace we were given, so we hope people live up to a standard and when they don't live up to that standard, we basically just downgrade them. For me, you never know what somebody's life could look like if you give them a second chance. Who would've thought that, if I did get 45 days (suspended) then my whole life might have looked different. I might not have gone to Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma—that was the best high school in Tulsa—probably wouldn't have been able to go to Kansas State."
And while Lockett isn't chasing any different on-field goals this year in terms of production, he has noticed some differences in offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's new offense that have benefited him, most notably an increased freedom in how he runs his routes.
"I feel like I'm back how I was at Kansas State," Lockett said. "… I feel like I have been given a little more freedom to be able to do a lot of stuff that I did back in college. I haven't had that freedom like I used to, so now I'm more comfortable in being able to do the stuff I used to do because that's how I have always played. I had to change my game up when I came here because it didn't fit how we did certain stuff, but I learned how to play where it fit more of what we did."
Whether it's the changes to the offense that have benefited Lockett this year, or the "healthier" hunger that's driving him, Lockett is playing as well in 2021 as he ever has, and if he keeps this up, a player often mentioned as one of the league's most underrated players might shed that label as more and more people outside of Seattle take notice.
"Maybe they just haven't paid enough attention to the extraordinary plays that he continues to make," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "The gifted plays down the field, he makes them look so easy and so gracefully. He's such a smooth athlete, maybe they just don't see the power, the explosion, and he's really fast. There was evidence in the play he broke off last week, they weren't even close to catching him. He has been kind of under the radar in that sense."