30 Jun 2014
by Rivers McCown
Tavon Austin became the fourth player since 1960 to have a 60+-yard receiving touchdown, a 60+-yard rushing touchdown, and a 60+-yard punt return touchdown all in the same season.
I hate tidbits like that. They're the empty filler that litters PR sheets. Any way a player can possibly stand out is documented, then that bit of knowledge is ejected into the world for us to see how rare the player is. Did you know that last year, Kellen Clemens became the first Rams backup quarterback with a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio since T.J. Rubley? No, you didn't. Because I made it up. Because it has little to do with how the player actually played.
The element of Tavon Austin's season you probably heard about was that Brian Schottenheimer had problems working him into the game plan. That's a neat way of dressing up Austin while maintaining his rarity. "Well, he's just such a unique player. It takes time to figure out how to use those guys correctly."
But Schottenheimer's problems using Austin mostly came about because Austin actually wasn't very good last season. Schottenheimer did him no favors, and the quarterbacks played poorly, but Austin has to own some of his own problems. For a guy who left approximately 829 Big 12 defenders on the ground in 2012, Austin sure didn't have much to offer in space as a rookie.
And that, more than anything, is why his numbers were poor. That's why the -19.8% DVOA was tagged on him. Because he was rare, but also rarely a functional weapon.
I looked at where Austin lined up before each snap. I gave an educated guess on whether he was facing man or zone coverage, as well as one for the type of route he ran. This can be hard to tell at times, and I still don't think my eye for film matches up with the best in the industry, but I did my best. I don't come into this looking to make sweeping conclusions based on the data we use. In fact, I don't come into this column looking to have a final say on anything.
The target totals listed below don't quite match the total listed on our wideout stats page. This is because we did not consider certain plays, including:
Here are my observations:
"Behind the line of scrimmage" includes passes that traveled less than one yard. "Short" indicates passes that traveled between 1-15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. "Deep" indicates passes that traveled 16 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Red numbers show a Success Rate of 50 percent or higher. Black numbers show a Success Rate between 40-49 percent, and blue numbers show a Success Rate of 39 percent or lower.
Success Rate is defined as the percentage of receptions where the player gains 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down. Some of these numbers may look "off" at times because pass interference plays are incomplete passes that are "successful."
So here's this first-round slot receiver the Rams invested the No. 9 overall pick on. You would think maybe he'd be shifty enough to actually garner a missed tackle or two on some screens.
Instead, Austin seemed almost utterly preoccupied with how fast he could put his foot in the ground and get upfield. It is true that Austin's speed is world-class -- that stood out even on these failed screens. But Austin was not powerful enough to take a hit while shifting his weight, nor does he have the balance to re-establish himself on glancing blows of the NFL caliber.
The result was that the Rams had an 18 percent Success Rate on screen passes to their jitterbug receiver. Did Schottenheimer have some involvement in this? Sure. His screen designs were either completely base or so agonizingly complicated that you'd think he found them in Ulysses.
But the main problem the Rams had with these plays last year was that Austin had no ability to make anyone miss in open space. After watching some college tape, I don't think he completely lacks this ability. But I do think he never properly adjusted to the NFL's speed and tackling, and I do wonder how coaching may have contributed to that.
"Slot" plays include all plays in which a receiver was inside of another receiver, regardless of how tight to the line he was. (For tight ends, if they are lined up at the LOS, they are counted as inline.) Some plays in the charting project include two or three "slot receivers" by this definition.
The other important element that Austin's speed was supposed to add to the Rams offense was a deep threat that could stretch the field. Except on deep balls, Austin could muster only a 36 percent Success Rate. And one of those four successes was a pass interference call that went his way.
As usual when it comes to these players that haven't seen many NFL snaps, I'll turn the floor over to Matt Waldman's 2013 RSP to show us something prescient:
Unlike McCluster, Austin has been targeted more often in the deep game and he makes good plays with his back to the football when he gets separation from coverage.
This is where I think a better comparison of Austin’s skills is former Browns runner-turned Falcons receiver, Eric Metcalf, a player I heard Jon Gruden mention on a telecast.
Similar to Metcalf, Austin’s his top-end speed on deep routes isn't as impressive on the field because he can get shoved off course by defensive backs fighting for position. While a faster athlete than Davone Bess he’s neither as skilled as Bess nor as athletic as Steve Smith when it comes to making plays in tight coverage 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Indeed, this was the case on most of Austin's deep targets. Cornerbacks found him easy to push around downfield, and the few times Austin won the ball deep, he usually found himself wide open due to a blown assignment. (Of course, he also torched Vontae Davis once.) With a small guy who has to win separation to get a good shot at the ball, your quarterback can't rely on him coming back over the top to get the ball. It takes an almost perfect ball to get it there.
Obviously we don't have the actual play calls. These charts are educated guesses and should not be considered gospel.
Austin was targeted on 71 balls last season. I threw four of them completely out of the sample as they were uncatchable due to reasons beyond Austin's control.
We listed Austin with six drops on those other 67 balls. And I think our charters were more than a little kind on a few others that were close.
To give credit to Austin, he was being used as a more conventional weapon. His routes weren't flawless, but they were a clear step up from how he was used in college. He had a lot to work on in this area, and it's okay that he didn't nail it all in his first season. He even started showing some hesitation and double moves down the stretch.
But this year was an utter waste. He especially struggled to catch low balls, high balls, balls that hit him in the hands, balls behind him, and balls ahead of him. It's almost impossible to be an effective underneath receiver when you're letting that many balls hit the ground.
If you happened to watch the NBA Draft on Thursday night, you watched the continuation of the Philadelphia 76ers' plan to create assets and not worry about winning now. Not coming over from Europe for a few years? Awesome. Broken bone in your foot? No worries! The Sixers know they won't win next season even if they hit on the most NBA-ready of players in the draft, and are willing to create a team full of long-term assets.
I bring this up because this is what the St. Louis Rams receiver depth chart looks like to me. The Rams have five different NFL receivers who were drafted before the fourth round, and a worthy reclamation project in Kenny Britt. Without going through all of them, one-by-one, I don't know how much credit or blame to assign them. They're working with a quarterback who I think will be released or traded after the season. They're working in a system that seeks to establish the run first. There doesn't seem to be any sort of established pecking order. The Rams seem like they could have a good receiving corps if they just let it happen, but instead they have a field full of long-term assets.
How does Austin fit in? I can't imagine that he'll be much more versatile than he was last season. If he can work on his balance and improve his elusiveness, he has a chance to work out as a Randall Cobb-type player. Based on what I saw of him last season, my first impression is that Austin is Ace Sanders with more speed and worse hands.
Tavon Austin's NFL tombstone has yet to be written. But after one year, the verdict shows that he's too unique to be effective.