In the days leading up to the 2002 NFL Draft, Gruden kept thinking about the little 5-foot-7, 155-pound receiver and return specialist from Kansas State and imagining the ways he could use him on offense and on special teams.
"Aaron Lockett is a guy who I wore on the scouts a little bit," Gruden said. "I called him 'Rocket,' they called him Lockett. He is an extremely fast, quick, punt return man who has enough versatility to contribute as a receiver. He's made some very exciting plays at Kansas State."
Despite drafting 6-foot-3, 213-pound Marquise Walker out of Michigan with the Bucs' first pick in the third round, and already having two other giant receivers on the roster in 6-foot-4, 219-pound Keyshawn Johnson and 6-foot-5, 230-pound Joe Jurevicius, Gruden bucked the Bucs' current trend of collecting bigger wide receivers and drafted Lockett, the smallest player available in the draft and now the smallest in the NFL, with the second of Tampa Bay's four seventh-round picks (No. 254 overall).
Gruden and Bucs general manager Rich McKay became infatuated with Lockett's playmaking ability, and his speed, which was on display for all NFL teams at the Indianapolis Scouting Combine in March.
"He can run. There's no issue about that," McKay said. "I think the Combine time was 4.32 (in the 40-yard dash), and that's electronic time, which as you know, is slow. Slower than hand-timed. He ran pretty fast."
"A 4.32 was a very legitimate time," Gruden added. "He was the fastest guy at Indianapolis. He's got a chance to make explosive plays. There's no guarantee that he'll make it, but there are no guarantees in life. When this guy hits it, he hits it. We want to give him a shot. We'll try to be creative in terms of what we ask him to do, but the guy did deliver at the college level with big plays."
Lockett knew that his size limitations wouldn't have cost him as much on draft day a decade or two ago when the Washington Redskins fielded a bunch of small receivers known as "The Smurfs", and teams like the Houston Oilers and Detroit Lions ran the Run-and-Shoot offense which featured smaller, quicker pass catchers. But over the past few years, bigger has become better at the receiver position in both college and the NFL, but thankfully for Lockett, speed will always be en vogue. He knew that running a fast time at Indianapolis would become his calling card on draft day.
"That was probably the difference maker," Lockett said of his fast 40-time. "Looking at receivers these days who are 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3, I'm not that kind of guy, but I can catch the ball. If you are going to be a smaller receiver or a slot receiver you have to possess not only quickness, but the ability to get open and stretch defenses and I feel I have that."
The Bucs knew Lockett was fast even before he ran a blistering 4.32 in the 40-yard dash at Indy. Bucs area scout Dennis Hickey, who covers the Big 12 and Big 10 regions each year, has been watching -- and timing -- Lockett for quite a while.
"I timed him as a junior in the spring and I knew he could really run," Hickey said. "There weren't many questions about Aaron. He's a good receiver who is a big-play punt returner. The question about Aaron is that there isn't a history of guys his size making it in this league, but there are always exceptions. People said that about Warrick Dunn and Warren Sapp, who is undersized for the defensive tackle position. That's why Aaron slipped this far. We think Aaron is an exception because of his toughness, speed and his production."
As Hickey noted, Tampa Bay hasn't been shy about drafting those "exceptions." In addition to Sapp and Dunn, the Bucs drafted 5-foot-8, 168-pound Florida receiver Jacquez Green with their first pick in 1998, and then spent a seventh-round draft pick on 5-foot-10 quarterback Joe Hamilton the next year.
Green departed to Washington in the offseason, which created a need for a speed receiver to stretch the field vertically so that Tampa Bay's bigger wideouts can work the intermediate and underneath routes. Lockett hopes that's where he can find his niche.
"I've known throughout the whole draft process that the Bucs were very interested in me," Lockett said. "I knew that they lost Jacquez Green and I know that Coach Gruden was coming in and trying to revamp their offense and I'm just excited about being one of the players he selected. I plan on using my speed to help them any way I can."
On a roster that already includes nine receivers, with Johnson, Jurevicius and Walker being the headliners, it is clear that Lockett faces an uphill battle to make Tampa Bay's 53-man squad and he'll have to unseat veteran receiver and punt returner Karl Williams to earn a spot on for the 2002 season. But that will be no easy task as Williams has scored four out of the five touchdowns on punt returns in the franchise's history.
"Given the fact that I can run really fast, special teams is where I can definitely utilize my speed the most," Lockett said. "I got real comfortable being a return man and we take that very seriously at Kansas State. I think they definitely groomed me and I've made the most of my opportunities. If given a chance I can have some of the same success that I had in college."
Lockett had tremendous success returning punts as a junior in 2000 when his number was called to fill in for David Allen, one of college football's all-time greatest punt returners. Allen, a senior, who had tied the NCAA record with seven touchdowns on punt returns, was injured in the season opener against Iowa, and the Wildcats' special teams unit was thought to have suffered a big blow.
But Lockett stepped in and stole Allen's job that year, returning 22 punts for 501 yards and an NCAA-leading 22.8-yard average. He also returned three punts for touchdowns, including an 83-yarder. The Wildcats lost several key blockers on special teamers after the 2000 season, and Lockett's averaged dipped to 10.8 yards with a longest return of 52 yards during his senior campaign.
Ironically, Tampa Bay came close to signing Allen during the offseason. The Bucs' eyes were opened by his 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash at Kansas State's pro day workouts in March. But after failing to make the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent last year, Allen opted to sign with Minnesota instead of Tampa Bay this spring because there was not as much competition for the punt and kick return job with the Vikings.
As fate would have it, Allen's decision not to become a Buccaneer only increased the chances that Tampa Bay would wind up drafting Lockett.
"We looked at David and he's got his own opportunity in Minnesota," Gruden said. "The one thing about Lockett is that he's got a chance to be a receiver, too. He caught 35 or 36 passes this year in a pro-style passing game, and he's got explosive speed. We'll run a reverse with him and throw the ball downfield to him. We'll try to be creative to get him some looks in the open field and see what he can do. We like what he has to offer."
While Lockett's punt return production last year never soared to the heights of his junior season, he did prove that he also had kick return ability, averaging over 28 yards per return and taking one back 97 yards for a touchdown.
"We'll take a look at him as a kickoff returner, too," Gruden said. "But you have to be careful with this man's size. He's 157 pounds. Returning kickoffs is a little different than returning a punt."
Lockett will have some "friendly" competition for the kickoff return duties as former Wildcat teammate Frank Murphy, and running backs Aaron Stecker and Byron Hanspard are also in the mix.
Lockett becomes the second K-State receiver drafted by the Buccaneers. The first was Darnell McDonald, whom Tampa Bay drafted in the seventh round in 1999. Murphy, a former K-State running back, was actually drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2000, but was claimed off of waivers by the Bucs after training camp.
A total of five Wildcats from the Bill Snyder era have been drafted by the Bucs. Tampa Bay also drafted kicker Martin Gramatica in 1999, and cornerback Rogerick Green and linebacker Elijah Alexander in 1992. They also signed running back Eric Hickson as an undrafted free agent in '99 and came close to signing Allen this offseason.
Hickey helps the Bucs keep a close eye on Snyder's program at Kansas State by visiting Manhattan several times per year observing, timing and gathering information about the Wildcats' NFL prospects.
"K-State players are always tough," Hickey said. "They are used to practicing hard. They're used to being in big games and playing on a big level of competition. They're usually guys that stick in the pros, even the guys who are drafted late -- they stick. It's a big time program that practices and plays like the pros do.
"They have some smart kids who are used to complicated systems, especially with a lot of audibles, shifts and motion. Special teams is emphasized and that's another reason why K-State guys make it because they are used to playing special teams. They are hard-working players who have paid their dues to work up the roster over time. There's not a lot of fluff at that program. They're one of the hard-working, elite programs."
Lockett is encouraged by the fact that he'll see some familiar faces in Murphy and Gramatica upon his first trip to Tampa, which will be for the team's mini-camp the weekend of April 26-28.
"It's definitely exciting," Lockett said. "Any time you go into a situation that you don't really know what to expect it's good to have some friends. I do know Martin and I do know Frank, and for that organization to have a lot of faith in Kansas State football players is extremely important to me. I'm just another guy in a long line of K-State guys who has gone on to Tampa Bay and hopefully I can make the team and make a name for myself."
Hickey said that while Lockett's smallish size may negate his blazing speed on some team's draft boards, the Bucs have studied him and watched enough film to know how tough he is.
"Although he's small, he's very tough and very durable," Hickey said. "He's produced all four years of his career. I'll say that he's one of the hardest working guys on their football team. Usually receivers aren't considered one of the more hard working guys on a team in terms of the weight room. Aaron was one of their best workers, he's smart and he comes from good stock. He brings the big-play dimension."
While Lockett must shine as a return specialist, he must legitimately beat out some accomplished wideouts and win the fifth or sixth receiver position to cement his place with the Buccaneers.
"If you watch his highlight tape, man, does he have some returns," McKay said. "We really have never designated a guy as a returner, to do both (punt and kick returns) and give him a chance to do both and make the team doing both. I think that's what we'll do with him. If he's able to make it, he'll have to make it as the fifth or sixth receiver, if we keep six. But his primary duties would be as a returner."
Lockett didn't really make his mark in college football as a receiver. His hands aren't exactly exceptional, and he saw his production decline from his best season, which came as a redshirt freshman in 1998 when he hauled in 44 receptions for 928 yards (21.1 avg.) and six touchdowns, including a school-record 97-yarder against Northeast Louisiana. He finished that game with six catches for 188 yards and two scores. But Lockett never enjoyed a moment like that as he advanced through the years in the Kansas State program.
Inconsistency at the quarterback position began after the departure of Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Bishop in '98 and Lockett's numbers dipped. He hauled in 33 catches for 531 yards and three scores in '99 and 36 grabs for 584 yards and two touchdowns in 2000. His senior year was a disappointment, catching only 24 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns.
"It was frustrating throughout my career," Lockett said. "It seemed like every year I was getting a different quarterback. I played with four or five quarterbacks throughout my whole four-year career. At the same note, I played with Darnell McDonald for a year and Quincy Morgan for two, then I had a new guy this year playing opposite me, I was the only constant element in our offense as far as the passing game goes. If you look at my production my senior year, we had a sophomore quarterback and he was very new to the game and very inexperienced and I think it really hurt our passing game."
While Lockett's senior season with the Wildcats was disappointing, especially with the team's 6-6 finish which was capped off by a stunning 26-3 loss to Syracuse in the Insight.com Bowl, he has a reason to be optimistic about his rookie season in the NFL. Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have given the speedy, diminutive receiver and return man a chance to play at football's highest level, and that's all Lockett wants -- a chance.
"I'm looking forward to it and I owe a lot of thanks to Kansas State and the Bucs organization for making it happen," Lockett said. "I'm going to give it my best shot."
Copyright 2002 Buccaneer Magazine/BucMag.com
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