Since being drafted, Tavon Austin use has been to be like everyone except Tavon Austin
When the then-St. Louis Rams selected Tavon Austin in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, the possibilities for his use in their offense seemed limitless. Line him up anywhere; there seemed like no wrong answer during the hours following the draft. The multi-tool phenom from West Virginia arrived, and his purpose on this team was to breathe life into a struggling offense.
We all know the story from there.
It’s a story that is marred with disappointment and somewhat of an identity crisis. Every season since his draft year, the rhetoric has been “the Rams should use Tavon Austin like (insert receiver here).”
With Sean McVay coming to Los Angeles after being Washington’s offensive coordinator, the comparison of the year is DeSean Jackson. McVay turned the Redskin offense around and made them a formidable machine, becoming one of the top units in the league.
One of the team’s top weapons? DeSean Jackson.
Now everyone is in the tribe advocating the Rams’ tailor Austin’s role in their new offense to what DeSean Jackson’s was in McVay’s offense the last few seasons. There are a few issues with that airtight logic.
Firstly, the two receivers couldn’t be more different. Apples-to-apples, Jackson is far more talented and experienced in the things everyone would like to see Austin do. Sean McVay said he would like to see Austin stretch the field more, catching passes from over the top.
As Alden Gonzalez from ESPN points out in his article today, Austin’s track record with those kinds of plays is lacking. Austin’s only made 15 career catches over 15 yards, which according to Gonzalez, is a total that’s been surpassed by 125 players the last four years.
When it comes to catching those deep passes, Austin’s 28.8 percent catch-rate is 13.7 points below the league average.
McVay is far superior in football intellect than I, but here’s a whacky idea: why not use Tavon Austin like Tavon Austin?
He’s been in the league long enough to know what works: throw the ball short either on a slant, across the middle, or towards the sideline, and if you want him to run the ball, give it to him on a sweep, end-around, or from the backfield (but only sparingly).
Going back to his West Virginia days, Austin was primarily used as a slot receiver who could run the ball on sweeps and from the backfield. Only a few times, if that, during games did West Virginia use Austin on the deep routes, and that was against simple college defensive schemes. Austin’s bread-and-butter in the NFL is the sweep runs and the short passes from the slot.
Austin can spread the field, so long as the intended real estate is in the middle of the field and his defender is a linebacker.
Austin proved this in 2015, when he had his career season gaining more than 900 yards from scrimmage. But compared to other receivers, Austin’s career-best was just another solid year from someone else.
Luckily for him, and for the Rams, the offense doesn’t run through Tavon Austin. The success of the offense doesn’t rest on how often the Rams can throw him a screen. What works is when the offense is consistently aggressive.
Too many times did the Rams offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer, Frank Cignetti, Rob Boras) bail on their quick and aggressive pace, in favor of the slow-ball that ran Todd Gurley or any of their running backs into a wall of defenders until they brought out the punter.
During the Jeff Fisher-era, the Rams perfected the art of doing the opposite of what worked for them and only showing progress when the game was already out of hand. They used Tavon Austin like they were supposed to, found success, and then abandoned going back to Tavon unless it was to throw him 20 screens.
Those days are over. Fisher is gone. McVay has arrived.
Hopefully Tavon Austin will arrive, too.
Tim Godfrey is the lead LA Rams writer and analyst for Pro Football Spot. Follow him on Twitter @MrTimGodfrey.