Golden Tate left Seattle as a well regarded receiver who became a Pro Bowler in Detroit. One of his talents that the Seahawks missed most, however, is something the Lions have not even asked him to do. Tate and the Seahawks ranked 6th in the NFL in punt return efficiency, according to FootballOutsiders.com in 2013. They fell to 16th last season in Tate’s absence. The impact of downgrading to Bryan Walters had ripple effects throughout the team, and eventually led to the urgency John Schneider and Pete Carroll felt in trading up to acquire Tyler Lockett, the player they saw as the best returner in the draft. Should Lockett deliver on his potential as both a punt and kick returner, the Seahawks will find a few extra points tacked onto their scoring average.
Changing the field
Average starting field position is an important statistic. It is also a squirrely one. Pro-Football-Reference.com (PFR) has a different number than FootballOutsiders.com. There is not an official number at NFL.com, but we can learn a fair amount from what is available to us.
The Seahawks, according to PFR, had an average starting field position of their own 32 yard line in 2013. That slid back two yards to their own 30 yard line last season. Those numbers include all the different ways a drive could start, including turnovers. Our focus here is on the return game.
Seattle had an average starting field position of the 28 yard line in 2013 for all drives starting with a kickoff, and that fell four yards to the 24 yard line last season. Similarly, the Seahawks average start after a punt was the 30 yard line in 2013, but it fell four yards to the 26 yard line last year.
The Seahawks had 139 drives in 2014 that started with an opponent punting or kicking off. If you factor in the extra four yards per drive they had to travel due to the inferior return game, the offense had to account for 556 additional yards last year to make up for the falloff. That amounts to an extra ~35 yards per game. Should a player like Lockett actually be a better kick and/or punt returner than what Seattle fielded in 2013, the difference could be even more than 556 yards.
Changing the score
Seattle scored a point for every 12.5 yards gained in 2013 and for every 14.9 yards gained in 2014. The Seahawks offense actually became more efficient last season in terms of points per drive, according to both FootballOutsiders and PFR. That means that despite having to travel farther, on average, than the 2013 team, the 2014 Seahawks scored more often per possession. That is hidden under the fact that Seattle went from 26.1 ppg in 2013 to 24.6 ppg last year.
Look at it this way, if the 2014 offense had the same field position the 2013 squad did, they would have scored more points than that team.
Think about it in rough terms relative to punt returns. We know Seattle started their average drive four yards further down the field on punt returns in 2013 than in 2014. We also know that the Seahawks scored on 44% of those drives in 2013, but just 36% of them last year. Both teams were roughly equivalent in their ability to score touchdowns off those possessions. The difference came more in scoring field goals (25% vs 17%). Field position obviously plays a massive role in field goal drives. If the 2014 team had scored a field goal on 25% of their drives that started with a punt return like the 2013 team, they would have scored 18 more points last year, or 1.1 more per game (25.7).
That is just if punt returns are equal to what Tate and crew did back then, and if the offense is only as efficient as they were that year, which evidence shows they already eclipsed last season and now have added weapons like Jimmy Graham to the mix.
Consider that overall average starting field position that we discussed at the start. The difference between starting at the 30 yard line (2014) versus the 32 yard line (2013) seems microscopic. Drive stats for Seattle say otherwise.
The Seahawks scored on 30% of their drives that started inside their own 30 yard line in 2012, then 34% of those drives in 2013, and back to 30% in 2014. When the team starts a drive outside their own 30 yard line, they have shown a steady progression in efficiency.
Percentage of Seahawks Drives Started Outside Their 30 Yard Line Resulting In Points
Those two extra yards in starting field position have the potential to have significant impact over the course of the season.
And none of this even assumes Lockett will account for any points on his own in terms of punt or kick returns for touchdowns. Just a single touchdown for Lockett as a returner would add 0.4 points per game to the team average.
Lockett could be one of the most impactful additions to this team without even contributing on offense as a receiver. Carroll looks for every opportunity to gain an advantage in field position, and the re-emergence of a productive return game should give the offense an advantage they were missing last year.
Should the offense step forward in efficiency in its own right, which Lockett may be a part of as well, this Seahawks team could challenge the 2005 squads franchise scoring mark of 452 points (28.2 ppg).