Ever since Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt left town, the St. Louis Rams have been in desperate need of a game-changing wide receiver. The organization hasn’t employed a 1,000-yard wideout since 2007, and it hasn't had a receiver catch more than 100 passes since 2005.
Danny Amendola was a nice find by former general manager Billy Devaney, but he never held a candle to Bruce or Holt. There may never be another receiver in team history who finds the same career success as those two, yet there is one player who certainly has the potential to impact the game the way they did.
General manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher have proven in one short year that they have a keen eye for talent. They drafted wide receiver Chris Givens, running back Daryl Richardson, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Michael Brockers in 2012. All four players contributed to St. Louis’ seven-win season by continuously progressing on a weekly basis last year.
The Rams finished the 2012 season with the 14th-best defense and the 23rd-best offense—a far cry from their atrocious 2011 season. However, the front-office staff had a few more tricks up their sleeves. Snead and Fisher vowed to build the team around franchise quarterback Sam Bradford, which meant the offensive overhaul carried over to the 2013 season.
In free agency, they supplied Bradford with one of the best pass-catching tight ends (Jared Cook) in the league while adding two top-flight wide receivers from West Virginia during the draft. Even though draft analysts viewed the Stedman Bailey pick as a steal in the third round, there was no bigger selection than Tavon Austin.
Coming out of college, Austin had solidified himself as one of the most explosive players in college football history. He was a two-time first-team All-American who was named the 2012 All-Purpose Performer of the Year. Furthermore, he set multiple Big 12 and Big East records over the course of his four-year career as a Mountaineer.
Austin’s statistical accomplishments helped define his collegiate career, but there was nothing more defining than watching him live. A lot of the things he did on the field could not be categorized by a simple box score. His elite speed and explosive nature gave the word “fast” a whole new meaning.
Just ask Rams punter Johnny Hekker: The rookie receiver left Hekker flat on his face during a return drill on June 11. Here’s what the second-year undrafted free agent tweeted out after the incident took place:
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan went on to further confirm the happening, while giving Austin a ringing endorsement at the same time, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. “(Austin) is the real deal, man.”
Nonetheless, we won’t rely on his teammates' early observations alone. Let’s have a look for ourselves by examining three different plays from three different games. The film breakdowns will help us understand why Austin is set to take the NFL by storm in 2013.
Each play highlights a strong point in Austin’s game.
The first play (seen below) focuses on Austin’s ability as a route-runner. More often than not, people solely focus on his explosiveness and forget about one of his most underappreciated talents.
Prior to the snap, West Virginia’s offense plans on deploying four wide receivers and one running back. Austin (circled) is lined up in the slot with the intentions to run a nine-yard curl route. The nine-yard route will lock up a first down if the ball is thrown his way.
The ball is in fact thrown his way, and Austin does a fantastic job of setting up the defender. Before he broke off his route, he faked to the inside and turned the defender around. The slight move to the inside gave him the freedom he needed to finish off the route with precision.
After Austin secured the catch, he had two options. He could either turn the ball upfield or try and get a block along the sideline. Regardless of his choice, he had already accomplished the task at hand. He ensured a first down by running a precise route and catching the ball.
In addition to excellent route running, the second play hones in on Austin’s vision as a runner and his world-class speed. At this year’s scouting combine, he posted the second-fastest 40-yard dash time. Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin ran the 40-yard dash in 4.27, and Austin ran it in 4.34.
Late in the first quarter against Texas, West Virginia spread out the Longhorns defense with five wide receivers. Austin (circled) was lined up in the slot on the left side. On this play, he was responsible for working the middle of the field.
The play called for a post route from Austin. It wouldn’t be a traditional post route because it would incorporate a double move. Off the line of scrimmage, he would run five yards and fake like he was cutting his route off right then and there.
As you can see, Austin came to a complete stop and looked back at Geno Smith for a split second. The look back at Smith proved to be just enough as the Longhorns’ closest defender was frozen in his tracks.
Austin’s quickness gave him the edge as he proceeded to sneak behind Adrian Phillips (No. 17) and make the catch at the 29-yard line. With the ball in his hands, he had a decision to make. He could try and split the two defenders (option No. 1), or he could try and make a defender miss by cutting the play back (option No. 2).
Austin opted for option No. 2 and scored from 40 yards out.
Very few players have the ability to simply kick it up a notch and outrun any defender who stands in their way. Not only did his speed help him find the end zone, but his vision in the open field helped him find the perfect opening down the sideline.
For the third and final play, we evaluated Austin’s ability to successfully gain separation and make the tough catch in traffic.
Over the course of his collegiate career, he seemingly left a different defender in the dust every week. Nevertheless, there was a rare occurrence from time to time where a defensive back would stick in his hip pocket.
West Virginia’s game against LSU in 2011 proved to be one of those rare occurrences. Austin was lined up in the slot with defensive back Tyrann Mathieu lined up directly over him. Off the line of scrimmage, the All-American wide receiver blew past Mathieu like he was standing still.
But LSU proved to be one step ahead, as it provided Mathieu with safety help over the top. Safety Karnell Hatcher (No. 37) took a great angle on the play to cut Austin off underneath. If the ball would have been thrown one or two seconds earlier, Hatcher would have knocked the ball away. Instead, Smith delivered the ball on time, and Austin started to slowly pull away by the time he made the catch.
After spending a good amount of time reviewing Austin’s skill set from 2011 and 2012, it’s easy to see that he’s a whole different breed of player. His dynamic playmaking ability will allow him to contribute in St. Louis as a receiver, returner and ball-carrier out of the backfield.
He probably won’t lead the Rams in receptions, but there’s a good chance he leads the team in yards from scrimmage. Austin told Ryan Van Bibber of Turf Show Times that he has been asked to learn three different wide receiver positions for the 2013 season. This means he should play a high number of offensive snaps.
In addition to Austin, can the rest of Coach Fisher’s team step up?
If they do, St. Louis has the opportunity to make it to the postseason for the first time since 2004, and Austin could become the first wideout in team history to win the Rookie of the Year award. With the way things went for Snead and Fisher in 2012, both of those scenarios seem entirely possible.