Breaking Down Tavon Austin's Role in the St. Louis Rams Offense
The St. Louis Rams made a big splash on the first day of the draft by trading up to the No. 8 overall selection in the draft to select one of its smallest players, West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin.
Austin, who is all of 5'9" and 174 pounds, is the draft's most explosive and dynamic athlete, despite his size concerns. He has absurd agility and versatility, with the ability to line up in multiple areas of the field. He can play running back (see against Oklahoma) or wide receiver and do each damn well.
Why? Because he has rare vision, body control and agility. Those traits, in a nutshell, overshadowed any concerns the Rams and others had about his ability to produce at the next level, which is why he was selected so high.
With the concerns out the window in St. Louis, the Rams have to figure out how they're going to use their weapon in the best possible way. Quarterback Sam Bradford is still a very talented quarterback, but he hasn't had many weapons to throw to until now. With Austin in the mix, Bradford has talent to work with, and he simply has to make the most of it.
The same can't be said for the coaches, however, who will have their work cut out for them to make the most of Austin's talent. It sounds like a pretty easy job, right? We, as fans, think of it as, "Hey, get Tavon the ball any way you can." The coaches, conversely, think of it as figuring out how to keep their offense from being so predictable while also giving him the ball as much as possible.
That's a tough act to balance and a very fine line to walk along, but there's hope that the Rams can do it, considering how much success they had throwing the ball to former wide receiver Danny Amendola last season prior to his injury. And as good as Amendola was, Austin has more talent, upside and versatility to become a better player, provided he stays healthy.
He has the ability to become a transcendent player if he is used correctly. Obviously, one of the first steps the Rams coaches can take to using him properly is lining him up in the slot. He's a natural slot receiver and a very difficult matchup for any defender, whether he's a cornerback, safety or linebacker, because of his agility.
Austin has rare agility and excels at short routes that emphasize short-area quickness. Patterns like the "jerk" route he ran against Texas last season are ones that he can do a lot of damage on. If you're unfamiliar with that route, it's one that he ran from the slot alignment.
When the ball snapped, he ran a diagonal stem toward the middle of the field and stopped at the near defender. This stop is purposely designed to generate a reaction from the defender, who then reacts by running toward Austin and looking to negate the pass.
Once the defender runs over, Austin starts back up and runs across the middle of the field, filling the vacancy that was left by the defender.
It's a cat-and-mouse game by the two, but it works very well. It's something that we've also seen receivers run in the past, specifically youngsters like Eddie Royal when he first came to the Denver Broncos. I expect to see the same in St. Louis this season.
While routes like the aforementioned ones are a standard part of the "pro-style" passing game, jet-sweep tosses are not. That's something that Austin has done a lot of over the last two seasons, and I wouldn't be surprised if offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer implemented it into his game plan.
Offensive schemes and philosophies have evolved in the NFL, with teams using more and more of college passing game principles in their playbooks. Last season, the Washington Redskins did a very good job of that while transitioning rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III into the pros, and I don't see why the Rams can't do the same for Austin.
The jet-sweep toss that Austin ran at West Virginia was one that was deadly, as witnessed in last year's Orange Bowl against Clemson. Clemson was destroyed by Austin's ability to turn the corner on the edge and get downfield in a hurry, especially when he got a head start from the jet motion.
It's a simple play, but one that's effective, and, frankly, is worth installing when one considers how little time it takes to teach and the dividends it pays.
Moreover, Austin is very dynamic in space, and, as previously mentioned, is versatile. He can line up in the backfield and do damage regardless of the play call. He can run the ball on zone-stretch concepts because he has the ability to find the cutback lane due to his uncommon vision agility. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield on swing passes, for instance, and do damage in the open field.
The latter, in particular, is exciting because when a player is lined up at a traditional running back alignment, more often than not, he's going to be facing man coverage from a linebacker. Generally speaking, that's a matchup advantage for the offense, and it's an even bigger one when that running back is Austin.
Against Iowa State, Austin showed off his elusiveness by eluding a linebacker in space and picking up a first down after lining up as the primary running back in West Virginia's pistol formation. It's a very impressive play, despite it being relatively simple when analyzing it. (2:36 mark)
Simple plays that can be turned into greater gains are the hallmark of an elite player, and that's what Austin can potentially become. If he's used correctly, of course, then he'll realize that status.
Schottenheimer will have to think creatively to get his new receiver the ball, but he's certainly not lacking options. Austin can line up in the backfield or in the slot and maybe even outside, though his route tree may be more limited than usual because of his size and defenses playing press coverage.
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