Tavon Austin was one of the most talked about prospects heading into April’s draft. The pint-sized receiver (5-foot-8, 174 pounds) from West Virginia was heralded by many as one of the most electrifying playmakers from the 2013 class.
Entering his senior season, there was talk about Austin maybe working his way into the first-round mix. He put together a tremendous senior year in which he accumulated 2,917 total yards while adding 17 touchdowns in a variety of manners -- receiving, rushing and on special teams as a returner. He combined that with a strong pre-draft process during which he confirmed the speed he had displayed on tape by clocking in with the second-fastest 40-yard dash (4.34). The St. Louis Rams traded with the Buffalo Bills from No. 16 to No. 8 to take Austin.
What made Austin unique coming out of West Virginia was his rare combination of lateral quickness and top-end speed. On tape, he was able to effortlessly weave in and out of traffic and was a threat to deliver a home run from anywhere on the field. Austin also brought excellent versatility, which was seen in last year's Oklahoma game, when he lined up at running back for the first time in his career and manufactured 344 yards rushing and two touchdowns. I attended that game, and it was the best individual performance I have seen live, as Austin registered a Big 12-record 572 total yards of offense against the Sooners.
Austin’s knack for creating splash plays in college placed high expectations on him coming into the season. He finally delivered what general manager Les Snead and the Rams organization had been waiting for in a 38-8 road victory over Indianapolis in Week 10. Austin pulled in two catches, both for touchdowns, of 81 yards and 57 yards while adding a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown. All three of Austin’s touchdowns were a direct result of his ability to create with the ball in his hands.
It would be easy to sit back and say Austin had been a disappointment leading up to his performance against Indianapolis, but when stepping back and taking a second look, that isn’t necessarily the case. First, going into the Indianapolis game, Austin was tied for second with the Houston Texans' DeAndre Hopkins and the New England Patriots' Aaron Dobson for receptions among rookie receivers with 31 -- behind only Keenan Allen of San Diego with 32 receptions.
Second, digging into the tape revealed that Austin had several big plays negated by penalties, including an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown in Week 3 against Dallas and a 64-yard touchdown reception against Carolina in Week 7. In addition, there have been several instances where Austin was cut loose by coverage, but QBs Sam Bradford and Kellen Clemens failed to locate him.
Austin can continue to improve working on avoiding traffic with routes, eliminating a few drops and maintaining better ball security. Austin lacks ideal size and strength and is easily knocked off routes. He must do a better job of keeping the ball tight to his body after the catch as defenders close quicker and have more awareness for ripping the ball loose at the NFL level.
Austin’s performance against Indianapolis has to get Snead the Rams' front office excited for what appears to be a promising 2013 draft class. OLB Alec Ogletree, who was taken with their second first-round pick (30th overall), needs more seasoning but has flashed the athleticism and playmaking ability that made him intriguing out of Georgia. Third-round pick Stedman Bailey, who was Austin’s teammate at West Virginia, has come on as of late and is beginning to contribute, while fifth-round pick RB Zac Stacy has already brought great return out of Vanderbilt, rushing for 537 yards and three touchdowns.
The loss of Bradford to a torn ACL against Carolina was a tough blow, as he had been playing some of his best football the two games prior. Snead may look to add another quarterback to the roster for depth this offseason from a 2014 draft class that might not have the talent at the top as the 2012 class but is shaping up to be one of the deepest in recent history.