With the lack of offensive firepower in the 2013 NFL draft class, NFL teams will be clamoring for quality talent and explosive playmakers at offensive skill positions.
While Keenan Allen, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson will all make a case for first-round consideration this offseason, there’s another receiver that may garner more intrigue in April.
Tavon Austin’s senior season at West Virginia University has been one of consistent production, big plays and highlight-reel moves. Austin is an electric playmaker with incredible speed, lateral agility
and field vision, making him one of the most dynamic weapons in college football.
Austin began his playing days at West Virginia as a running back and kick returner, but despite gaining 9.8 yards per carry on limited touches in 2009 and 2010, Austin made the switch to wide receiver for
the 2011 season.
Austin has a small frame, and at 5’9”, 175 pounds, the decision to flex out Austin to the slot may be what kept him healthy and on the football field.
While durability concerns may have factored into Austin’s new position, it is his physical abilities that make him a great fit for the slot in both college and at the next level.
Austin’s physical abilities are astounding, and it’s likely he’ll put on a show at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. He has the speed to run a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash, and with his elite lateral agility and quickness on the playing field, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Austin lead all receivers in the 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drills.
If his physical skills aren’t enough to impress every scout, his field vision certainly will.
There are few players in college football with the vision and instincts that Austin possesses. He’s perhaps the best open-field runner in the nation, and the Mountaineers have optimized his ability this season by finding ways to get him the ball in space.
In the final three games of the regular season, Austin recorded 47 carries and amassed 495 rushing yards and three touchdowns, including a 344-yard performance against Oklahoma. In that span, Austin also caught 14 passes for 291 yards and a receiving touchdown.
Prior to WVU’s Nov. 17 game against Oklahoma, Austin failed to catch 10 balls in a game just once, and his yardage totals were incredible. In the Mountaineers’ final two September contests, Austin hauled in 27 catches for 394 yards and five touchdowns.
West Virginia has utilized Austin’s skills beautifully. He has lined up in the backfield, in the slot and split out on offense—in whatever position allows Austin to touch the football. He’s also been a stellar kickoff and punt returner. Austin averaged 26.36 yards per kickoff return in 2012, and he’s taken five kicks to the house in his career at West Virginia.
While the statistics are astounding, it’s important to remember how different the NFL game is, though.
Austin doesn’t have the frame to withstand the beating of 50 snaps per game at the next level. He’s not an every-down player, regardless of how he would be utilized in an NFL offense.
Austin projects as a slot receiver in the NFL with the versatility to be used in a role similar to that of Minnesota Vikings receiver Percy Harvin. He has the speed and quickness to do damage in space,
but he lacks some of the qualities that make a good X receiver in the NFL.
Because of his size, Austin doesn’t win many jump-ball situations. He’s not a leaper, and at the professional level, most defensive backs will have the advantage in those situations. Though there are
examples of short receivers having success split out wide (Carolina’s Steve Smith), he simply doesn’t possess the necessary receiving skills to succeed as an X receiver.
Austin also needs to work on concentration and catching the ball in traffic. He’s an explosive athlete, but isn’t a pure receiver right now. He’s a raw prospect at the position with a lot of room to grow and develop.
Austin's best chance at immediate success in the NFL will be with a team that utilizes a lot of crossing patterns and combination routes. He’s a good route-runner with elite speed, and given the opportunity to work underneath routes and exploit soft spots in coverage, Austin can do special things with the football.
We’ve seen an influx of “offensive weapons” in the league in recent years—Dexter McCluster, Percy Harvin, Randall Cobb and Darren Sproles being prime examples. There is a positional ambiguity for such players, but in the right system, each has an ideal fit.
Regardless of his eventual pairing, every NFL team will look at Austin as a potential playmaker. His receiving skills can be honed, and Austin’s brand of electric football can make an immediate impact on
whichever team drafts him.
How close Austin measures to his listed height and weight, along with his numbers at the scouting combine, will have an effect on his draft position, but it’s unlikely either will damage his standing as a
fringe first-round prospect.
The 2013 draft class is loaded with defensive talent from top to bottom, while offensive depth—especially at skill positions—is lacking considerably compared to recent years. Players like Austin will come at a premium, primarily in the early rounds.
He has the talent and outstanding body of work to be selected in the first round. Nearly every team in the league has the need for offensive weapons, especially teams without a true slot receiver.
If there is a run on quarterbacks and receivers in the early and middle parts of Round 1, Austin will be all but guaranteed a phone call in the first round.