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Tavon Austin Looks Primed to Break Out as Dallas Cowboys' Playmaker

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 14, 2018

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, center, hugs running back Tavon Austin (10) before an NFL preseason football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Tavon Austin is where he needs to be to finally realize his full potential, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones couldn't be happier with the team's new offensive weapon. 

Jones made a surprising comparison when discussing Austin at training camp. 

"I like the energy that No. 10 is bringing," Jones said, per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. "That's inordinate because just by the nature of how we got him here and his pedigree, for him to bring along that really, it's Michael Irvin-ish as far as the energy that he brings. I know the guys appreciate him."

The Playmaker isn't walking through the door at 52 years old to solve the Cowboys' wide receiver problems. But Austin is now mentally and physically ready to become a dynamic threat. 

The fact that Austin is drawing positive reviews shows how far he has come in a few months. The Los Angeles Rams were ready to release the failed draft pick, according to NFL Network's Mike Garafolobefore finding a trade partner.

Jones' reference was a nod to Austin's on-field demeanor and not his skill set. Comparing any current player to a Hall of Famer is always a mistake. Yet, a larger-than-life personality is exactly what the Cowboys need among a nondescript group of skill-position performers. 

OXNARD, CA - AUGUST 02:  Tavon Austin #10 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball during training camp at River Ridge Playing Fields on August 2, 2018 in Oxnard, California.  (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images
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A take-charge version of Austin is a far cry from the previous incarnation that played for the Rams organization. Calling the receiver's first five seasons a disappointment is an understatement. The Rams traded up to the eighth overall pick in the notoriously awful 2013 draft and chose the West Virginia product. He's never managed more than 907 total yards from scrimmage in any season yet signed a $42 million contract extension before the 2016 campaign. In March, the Rams and Austin agreed to void the last three years of his contract, which made him easier to trade. 

A month later, the Cowboys flipped a sixth-round pick to the Rams for Austin. He's been everything the team wanted upon agreeing to the deal. 

"He's a steal," Dak Prescott said during minicamp, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer

The quarterback could already see what Austin brought to the offense as a hybrid runner/receiver. However, Austin's turnaround in the blue and silver occurred long before he ever put on the team's uniform. 

His misusage within the Rams offense under previous head coach Jeff Fisher from 2013 to 2016 is not a secret. Fisher's staffs lacked creativity and didn't continually place Austin in a position to create, which is amazing after they paid a stiff price to draft him. It's not like his skill set changed from West Virginia to the professional ranks. 

This doesn't excuse the 28-year-old target, who is equally culpable in his disappointing play. Austin never committed himself. Other priorities superseded what happened on the field. 

"I didn't respect the game enough," Austin acknowledged, per the Dallas Morning News' Brandon George. "That's what I'm doing again. I'm getting back to leaving the money and all that stuff alone and coming in and playing the sport that I love."

Reporters pressed Austin on what he meant about not respecting the game. 

"For one, my work ethic," he said. "My work ethic went out the window. I'm not saying I wasn't working hard, but it went out the window. I didn't work as hard as I used to do."

Tavon Austin's Career Production
YearCarriesRushing YardsCatchesReceiving YardsTotal TDs
20139151404185
201436224312422
201552434524739
201628159585094
20175927013471
NFL.com

Statistically, Austin had his worst individual effort last season despite playing in the game's top scoring offense. It served as a wake-up call. 

"After last year it showed me when I sat and rode that bench last year, you got to respect it," he added. "You've got to put in the work. Steph Curry can shoot 2,000 shots a day, why not are we doing the same thing with a football catching it?"

A new approach and better attitude should spur more production. Austin appears mentally ready to take on a bigger role after years of not showing those capabilities. Machota reported Austin has been one of Dallas' most consistent performers during camp. 

His physical capabilities never waned, though. Yes, Austin's diminutive size (5'8", 179 pounds) will always hinder him to a degree. But his game is predicated on short-area quickness, long speed (4.34-second 40-yard dash) and the ability to create after the catch. A renewed sense of devotion to his craft should align with his skill set and show exactly why Austin was once considered an elite prospect. He found a perfect home with the Cowboys. 

The NFL is like the housing market. What's most important? Location, location, location. Austin can be more effective in Dallas than any other NFL locale.

He can run behind the league's most talented offensive line—which tends to dominate at the point of attack—and the Cowboys lack a go-to receiver after Jason Witten's retirement and Dez Bryant's release. The rest of the wide receiver room consists of Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Lance Lenoir Jr., Noah Brown, K.D. Cannon, Mekale McKay and rookies Michael Gallup and Ricky Jeune. 

You shouldn't be embarrassed if you mouthed to yourself "Who?" after reading that lineup, because it's the biggest question yet to be answered in Cowboys training camp. 

Beasley is the most likely to emerge as Prescott's favorite target because he's shifty, reliable and consistently works his way open over the middle of the field.

Austin, however, brings an entirely different element and shouldn't be looked upon as just a receiver or running back. He's now a "web back" and slated to be the versatile piece he's always been destined to become. 

"I love it," Austin said. "It's all about getting the ball in space for me. That's all I really want, get the ball in space and have a little fun and show what God blessed me with."

He caught two passes for 25 yards in his debut Thursday. Although, the Cowboys aren't going to show their hand during the preseason. They're not going to let their vertical threat loose against poor competition, even though he's been a handful for defensive backs in practice sessions, as Machota captured: 

Jon Machota @jonmachota

Best play of training camp: Tavon Austin https://t.co/SOP8Trdvlp

The Rams never fully committed to Austin as a weapon. Head coach Jason Garrett and the Cowboys can be more imaginative. Austin can line up as a wide receiver from the slot or outside while also spelling Ezekiel Elliott in certain packages. Better yet, Elliott and Austin can also play at the same time, and defenses too focused on Elliott could give Austin the space he craves. 

"You can call him whatever you want to call him," Garrett said, per the Associated Press' Schuyler Dixon. "He's obviously very quick. He's very fast. We're comfortable lining him up as a receiver outside or inside and certainly in the backfield as well. He's done all those things."

Austin doesn't need to be a traditional wide receiver to serve as Dallas' No. 1 receiving threat—he just needs to be himself. Early indications show a player finally comfortable in his skin and about to be unleashed in what's become a mismatch league. 

   

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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