by Matt Waldman
Evaluating players is a long process. It doesn’t end when an analyst watches a few games of a prospect. I want you to keep this in mind as you read this take or any take that I provide of a player before his college career has ended. My methodology of evaluation is as detailed as any, and I often find that the third, fourth, or fifth game I’ve watched of a player only validates what I saw in the first performance. Even so, there are times that my fundamental opinion of a player will change with additional viewings of games.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall comes to mind. I had initial concerns about his acceleration that eventually diminished after additional viewings of his performances. The more I watched him, the more I liked him. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the more I watched quarterback Matt Leinart, the less confident I felt that he had the on-field makeup to become anything more than system player with fringe starter potential.
I share this because West Virginia receiver and return specialist Tavon Austin is one of those players where after my initial studies I have more questions than answers. Several draft analysts list Austin as one of the five best receiver prospects of the 2013 NFL Draft class -– including NFL Draft Scout and my buddy Josh Norris over at Rotoworld. I agree that the 5-foot-9, 176-pound slot receiver and kick return specialist from West Virginia is among the most productive performers at his position in college football, but what I have seen of Austin continues to raise one question: is there a slot receiver in pro football with the kind of marquee game that in hindsight would have deserved a first-day pick in April?
There were several players I thought of immediately: Victor Cruz, Percy Harvin, Randall Cobb, Steve Smith, and Wes Welker. However. the only two players of the group that share Austin’s size limitations are Smith and Welker. Not only is the list of "top-tier prospects" laden with a healthy dose of hindsight, but it’s debatable that Smith was ever strictly a slot receiver. This raises some points that apply to a player with Austin’s size and role within West Virginia offense. Points that may also become a more common issue as college and pro teams embrace these mighty-mites in the future.
I think there are two different types of small receivers playing in the NFL. The first is the dynamic style of player that can deliver effective performances from either the slot or the perimeter. I’m defining "small" as under 5-foot-10. This means Harvin, Cobb, and Cruz don’t apply to this analysis and only Smith fits the bill as a dynamic small receiver -– and he was a third-round pick from Utah who mostly returned kicks as a rookie. Smith was considered a surprise star at the receiver position. Austin will have to demonstrate the leaping ability, physical skill in tight coverage, and the long speed to warrant the first-round selection that Smith deserved in hindsight.
The other style of small receiver fits how the NFL defines the physical and technical characteristics of a slot player in the most classical sense. This includes the obvious names: Lance Moore, Danny Amendola, Andrew Hawkins, Davone Bess, and Welker. While many of these players can get deep as perimeter players, it’s not their strong suit. They are not going to out-muscle or out-leap larger defenders or consistently defeat press coverage like Smith.
The Browns signed Moore as a street free agent from Toledo before cutting him. When the Saints added him to their practice squad, Moore was allocated to the Berlin Thunder before earning a shot to start in New Orleans. Amendola was originally an undrafted free agent for the Cowboys, and eventually bounced to the Eagles before sticking with the Rams. Although both Moore and Amendola are sure-handed receivers with skills to find openings versus zone coverage, Austin is a dynamic open-field weapon and this is one of the reasons why he generates excitement among Saturday football fans.
But don’t get too enamored with Austin’s flash with the ball in his hands. Former Toledo receiver Andrew Hawkins has demonstrated moves with the Bengals that rival, if not surpass, Austin’s skill as a ball carrier. Yet, every team in the league bypassed Hawkins in the 2008 NFL Draft, and the Cleveland Browns didn’t even sign him after a post-draft workout. Cincinnati’s real-life video game character needed stints with the CFL and Michael Irvin’s 4th and Long reality show on Spike TV to earn another shot in the NFL.
Only two receivers in the recent past have earned as high as a second-round grade by the NFL’s selection committee that share the Austin/Hawkins attributes: Kansas City Chiefs "player without a position" Dexter McCluster and Miami Dolphins receiver Davone Bess. However, Bess’ criminal record and a 4.6-second showing in the 40 at the NFL Combine led him to go undrafted despite earning a second-round grade from the NFL’s selection committee. Bess is nearly as dynamic with the ball in his hands as Austin and he was arguably a better overall receiver than Austin at the same stage of his career.
The Chiefs picked McCluster in the second round, but the team has spent two years trying to figure out if the former Ole Miss star is best cast in its offense as a Hawkins-type or more along the lines of Darren Sproles. The fact that they lack the surrounding talent, if not the conceptual savvy, to maximize McCluster’s skills is another factor that underscores the risk involved with pulling the trigger on a hybrid player with a high-round pick. McCluster’s versatility as a return specialist warranted the original pick. I’d also argue that McCluster is a more explosive and physical player than Austin and that he is best suited as a running back in an offense that, to his individual misfortune, has a surplus on its roster.
This background information about these other slot receivers is to underscore the point that, if Austin is truly one of the five best receiver prospects in this year’s draft class, then I believe one of these factors must apply:
1. Austin’s dynamic ability approaches that of Steve Smith.
2. The NFL’s offensive evolution to spread sets with hybrid players is increasing the value of slot receivers.
3. This is one of the weaker classes of senior receivers in recent years.
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As far as strength of this year’s receiver class, the jury is still out. When it comes to how the league values the role of a small receiver, I don’t believe that the NFL has gone so slot-happy that it is willing to inflate the value of the position. Just as Russell Wilson still has to prove doubters wrong despite Drew Brees’ success, Welker and Smith are still considered the exceptions to the rule. And based on what I’ve seen against Clemson in the Orange Bowl and then two weeks ago versus Texas, I have not seen enough to conclude that Austin is that future exception. I reserve the right to change my mind as I watch more of his performances, but after initial viewings I’m not as enamored with Austin as my peers.
If my initial views of Austin prove correct, this doesn’t make the receiver a bad prospect. I would still agree with other analysts that Austin has the ability to earn an early-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. There’s a lot to like about his skill, versatility, and feel for the game. Unlike Devin Hester and Ted Ginn –- players that I didn’t believe were gifted pass catchers -– Austin does a good job of catching the football and in the right offensive system he could thrive as a contributor.
However, there are unanswered questions about his overall game thanks to his use in Dana Holgerson’s Mountaineer offense. I believe the more vanilla offenses in all-star games that force players to showcase athleticism and technical skill in ways that specialized systems do not will be "show-me" time for any NFL teams that are hoping to be sold on Austin as something more than a high-round special teams star with gadget-play cameos on offense. Either I’ll be among the converted, or more of my colleagues will have similar questions that I raise here.
Vision, Change of Direction, and Maturity in Traffic: Check. Blazing Speed? I’m Still Looking.
Austin is fast enough to play in the NFL: the question is whether he truly has enough speed to become a difference-maker on the perimeter. His quickness when changing directions and his burst from a standstill are what makes him an excellent runner, return specialist, and short-range receiving option.
Austin has shown that he is capable of taking the ball the distance behind good blocking. I have seen him makes these plays after short passes and kick returns. He also has enough speed to get behind a safety or cornerback with a double move.
However, the only deep routes where I’ve seen him blow by a defender were missed assignments or mismatches against linebackers or safeties. I am still searching for plays where Austin has beaten a defender locked onto him in coverage on a straight-forward vertical route. Further, I haven’t seen Austin outrun a cornerback with a true angle on him in the open field. Each potential opportunity I have seen ends with Austin trying to spin away or undercut the defender because he couldn’t outrun the opponent’s angle.
The games I watched include West Virginia’s matchups with Clemson , Baylor , Texas , Maryland , and LSU. Thus far, Jon Gruden has compared Austin to former Texas runner, Browns hybrid, and Falcons run-and-shoot receiver Eric Metcalf. I agree with the point of comparison in terms of agility, but if he lacks the long speed of Metcalf, then I think Bess might be a more realistic point of comparison. Neither of these players have the same combination of skills that engender comparisons to a perimeter player of Smith’s ilk.
A good example is Austin's first touch,a game-opening kick return for 44 yards. Austin fields the ball inside the left hash at the four. The nearest defender is the only one of three to get through the West Virginia blocking scheme.
Austin presses the run up the middle, waits for the free defender from the left to commit inside, and cuts back to the wide-open flat on the left side. This cut back is quick enough to leave the first defender in the dust. It also places him in a good one-on-one position against the second defender, who breaks too far to the inside at the left hash 10 yards away.
He outruns that defender to the left hash, passing him at the 15, and runs through a glancing blow to his legs at the 17. At this point, the rest of the Texas special teams unit has to turn and give chase from the inside. This is more about his initial quickness and skill at setting up his blocks than his downfield speed.
Austin gains another 15 yards up the left flat, getting outside the numbers. At this point he has a defender over top at the 38 about five yards away and bearing down from the inside. Austin waits until he is a step from the defender over the top, and bends the run inside to make the defender miss.
While Austin has to slow his pace to set up this move, the decrease in speed wasn’t enough to give the backside defenders a noticeable opportunity to recover unless Austin lacks game-breaking speed. The defense catches Austin, grabs the receiver by the back of the jersey, and throws him to the ground at the 46. The only thing Austin does on this return that he could improve is to carry the ball under his sideline arm. This is something I’ve seen Austin forget to do before. While I have seen him forget to switch the ball to his left arm when running up the left side of the field enough times to classify it as a common lapse of disciplined ball security, he has also shown on multiple occasions that he’s capable of making the switch when it is appropriate to do so.
This six-yard gain on a second-and-13 pass with 12:42 in the game is another example of good quickness, but not consistent, game-breaking speed.
This play is an end around to the left side of the field. There’s misdirection towards the right to set up an open edge. Austin gains the six before the safety wraps Austin’s legs in the flat.
Once again, he looks quick, but not blazing fast. The safety's ability to come from the opposite side of the field to establish a winning angle on the receiver and make this play is a good example. The safety, Kenny Vaccarro, is a good enough athlete to contribute in the NFL, but plays like this are a good indication that Austin’s speed lacks that top gear to defeat good angles like this.
Keep in mind that as I point to plays that I feel are examples of speed that is not top-notch, Austin is clearly fast enough to generate big plays. This fourth-and-4 touchdown reception with 1:55 in the first quarter is a good example. Quarterback Geno Smith takes the snap from a 2x3 empty shotgun set versus two safeties high. The Longhorns play a six-man front and send four defenders, while the other two drop into shallow coverage.
Austin makes a nice move to get open on the defender by working four yards upfield and initially turning back to the quarterback. But his route is essentially a double-move, similar to a deeper route he ran across the middleagainst Baylor’s safety that earned him a wide-open path further downfield. On this play, Austin isn’t working as far downfield, but the double-move is good enough that he gets another five yards downfield before breaking inside and leaving the shallow defender behind him.
Austin leaves his feet to catch the ball with his hands in front of his chest, and as soon as his feet return to the ground he cuts across the field, dips under an oncoming defensive back’s reach just shy of the right hash, and picks up a block. At this point he beats four defenders up the flat for the score, earning 31 after the catch. It’s an athletic play and a demonstration of good speed -- but again, based on the nature of the play, the defenders in pursuit, and the field position, is it really a demonstration of speed from a first-round receiver?
I still think the jury is out because I think the move Austin makes as soon as his feet hit the ground fools the safeties over top and gives him that extra step or two to win the angle to the corner. However, that movement is the type of skill that could make him a top-tier prospect at his position if he can show the ability to win these angles on a consistent basis against elite athletes.
More Questions about Speed and Functional Strength in Tight Coverage
This is a deep post on third-and-9 with 13:31 in the half from West Virginia’s most common alignment: a 20-personnel, 1x2 receiver set. Austin is running the post from the slot and draws double coverage from the strong safety and the outside linebacker. The strong safety is a step outside the hash with Austin a step inside.
This initially looks like single coverage deep with a chance for Austin to get inside. The outside linebacker is close enough to the line of scrimmage that I’m guessing Smith thinks this play will be a single coverage where Austin draws the defensive back deep or the linebacker short.
At the snap, Smith looks to his left to hold the free safety and then turns back to the strong safety and targets Austin on the deep post. What Smith doesn't see while he is holding off the free safety is the linebacker turning and running with Austin.
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The linebacker establishes a strong position and maintains it throughout the route as part of a high-low bracket on the receiver. Although this linebacker might be faster than the average player at his position and I’m just not aware of it, the body of evidence that I’ve seen is that Austin simply isn’t as fast as many believe at first glance. Once again, this is another play where I see a player with good acceleration, but his downfield speed is not that of a primary weapon in most NFL offenses.
Smith's pass travels 39 yards on a line to the receiver between the defenders, but the coverage is too tight for Austin to make the catch. During the reception-phase of the throw, Austin gets jostled by the safety over top and the defender nearly makes the interception. However, the officials didn't make the call.
While this is the type of coverage from a safety that could have been called pass interference depending on the crew of officials, it wasn’t an egregious foul. If he isn’t trying to draw the foul, Austin needs to get stronger and develop more balance when dealing with contact to his upper body. I actually think Austin tried to draw the foul, because his reaction on the tape was a dramatic flail of his arms after the slight push. If this is the case, then Austin needs to focus on maintaining position and forcing the defender to get even more physical to stop him so there is no question about the foul. I like Austin’s lower body strength and balance as a runner, but he’ll need to use more of that balance and upper body strength without the ball in his hands.
This shows up a lot as a run blocker. I’m not critiquing Austin’s run-blocking as a major question behind his draft stock. While teams that value run blocking from their receivers might ding Austin if they don’t see evidence that demonstrates potential to improve in the area, Austin’s value will be as a space player with the ball in his hands. However, I am providing you an example of his run blocking difficulties because it is an indicator of his upper-body strength and skill to push or get pushed around by defenders with the approximate size and strength he’ll face when dealing with NFL press coverage. It's extremely rare to see that in college, and certainly we haven't seen Austin face it much during his career.
Here is a second-and-4 draw play with 8:34 in the first quarter from a 2x1 receiver, 20-personnel pistol set. Austin is the slot receiver.
He releases from the line of scrimmage with the defensive back two yards off the line. Austin slants inside and places his outside hand to the chest of the defender and leans his outside shoulder into the defender's body while turning his head to the line of scrimmage to gauge the progress of the runner.
The defender grabs Austin's chest with both hands, and as Austin tries to deliver a punch with his inside hand, the defender throws the receiver aside like a rag doll. This aspect of football is never likely to be his strong-suit, but if he delivers a punch and uses better hand placement, he could have avoided this result.
On several occasions versus Clemson in the Orange Bowl, I saw Austin deliver a punch, but when he did so, he left his feet and lost control of his body. It takes strength to deliver physical play from a controlled body position. If Austin has to leave his feet or attempt to throw a haymaker to get the job done, then it might be an indicator that he needs to get stronger. With his limited frame to work with, there will be questions about his ability to do so.
Evaluating players is a process. Most of the time, I’m writing to give you a firm stance on aspects of a player’s abilities based on observation. However, it’s often just as important to display examples of where I still have questions. If you have examples of Austin beating a cornerback on a streak or post without a double move and the coverage didn't fail due to a busted assignment, I’d love to hear from you. Because after viewing five games, I haven’t seen it, and it means Austin will be a player I hope to see at the Senior Bowl in January.