Almost everyone wants the Rams to take Tavon Austin or Cordarelle Patterson in the first round of next week's draft if either is still there at #16. From my fellow Ram fans here on TST to draft experts everywhere, the overwhelming majority are clamoring for or predicting either Austin or Patterson to become the newest WR for the Rams with their first pick on the evening of April 25th. The debate hasn't really centered on whether the Rams should draft either of these guys, but rather which of the two the Rams should select if both are available at #16. I say draft neither, whether it be at #16 or #22.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm certainly no expert, nor am I remotely close to being one, when it comes to evaluating talent and judging how a certain player fits within a certain scheme run by this team or that team. I'm also not a film junkie. But, I do watch a lot of collegiate and NFL football, and have done so for 36 years. Over that time I have developed a few thoughts on draft strategies and projecting college players to the NFL.
One of the ideas I've come to embrace over the years is that, outside of the QB position, the WR position is the most difficult to transition from college to the NFL. I have heard this exact thought expressed by the likes of Greg Cosell, Bill Belichick, Mel Kiper Jr., and a myriad of others who make a living doing just this sort of thing. What that means is the WR position is by nature a high risk position to draft. In fact, the "bust" potential is greater than that of any other position outside of QB.
A large part of this uncertainty when evaluating WR's stems from the fact that college production really has to take a back seat to physical measureables when trying to determine how a WR will transition to the NFL. This is due to several factors, but there are a couple that stand out as the most important factors that must be acknowledged when projecting a WR to the NFL level. One is the significant difference in the distance between the hash marks between collegiate and NFL football. In the college game, there is a defined wide side of the field that leads to many easy catches and yards for WR's but doesn't really tell us anything about the receiver's skill set. The second factor is the glaring lack of comparable quality at CB at the collegiate level. With the recent proliferation of spread offenses at the collegiate level, this factor has been exacerbated. With multiple WR's flooding the field, there just aren't enough quality CB's to match up, creating obvious mismatches that further inflate the production of the WR's but again doesn't really tell us a lot about the receiver's skill set. So does this mean that a college WR's numbers are worthless? No, of course not. But the usefulness of those numbers are limited in scope, and should be used as only one of several parts of the overall evaluation process.
Now, before I move on to the specifics regarding Austin and Patterson, I must state that I am fully aware of the "Cosell Doctrine" brought to our attention here at TST by the incomparable "Dub13" and that I fully agree with what Cosell sees as the continuing evolution of the NFL offense. I also realize Cosell highlighted Austin and Patterson in the first part of his "Cosell Doctrine" article as being excellent examples of two college WR's that are highly regarded in large part because they represent the ongoing shift in the NFL toward "players that are amorphous and fluid in their ability to be utilized in ways both multiple and expansive, yet somewhat unstructured based on conventional definitions." In other words, "Jokers," or in plain English, players that can be aligned all over the formation, whether they be TE's, WR's, or RB's. I must also mention here that the Rams, along with several other teams, have already embraced this shift. The Rams value WR's with the versatility to line up all over the formation. They used DA in the slot and on the outside last year. Givens as well (more on that later). The signing of Cook was done with the intent of this type of positional flexibility as well. The Rams are building a WR corps that presents the coaching staff with the flexibility to create mismatches with various personnel groupings and offensive formations. Now on to Austin and Patterson.
I'll address Tavon Austin first. The NFL Draft is a risky proposition. A team takes a risk every time they choose a player. Drafting WR's is a bit trickier and thus inherently carries more risk. Further still, some WR's are riskier than others. Austin is one of those high risk players. I have two main concerns / issues with Austin and bringing him to the Rams. First and foremost is his size. I know, tell you something you haven't already heard. But it is an issue. He's only 5'8" and 174 lbs. Austin will be limited by his size in the NFL. While he was a classic "Joker" at WVU, being used all over the formation, including the backfield, and excelled as a kick-returner, at his size his exposure will have to be limited in the NFL, and will directly limit his versatility and overall impact as a result, which is his biggest selling point. He won't be given 21 rushing attempts as he was against Oklahoma, for example. His size will limit his real contribution as a WR to the slot. He just doesn't have the size and length to play on the outside. His size wouldn't stop him from filling a glaring need on the Rams roster as a kick returner, but again the more exposure he gets the greater the likelihood of being injured (see: Danny Amendola), and teams don't need to draft kick returners in the first round as there are others who can help fill that role available later in the draft. His frame just doesn't have the bulk to take the huge hits dished out regularly over the course of a full season by NFL defenders. No matter how elusive a player is, he's going to get hit and hit hard if he has the ball in his hands on a regular basis in the NFL. NFL players are bigger, faster, and stronger than those he faced while in college. More specifically, if he were taken by the Rams he'd have to go up against 3 of the most physical, hard-hitting defenses in the NFL 6 times per season. It's simple physics, the 250 lb. object smacks into the 174 lb. object, and that smaller object takes a concussive blow that it just doesn't have the mass to dissipate. The hits will pile up over the course of a season or two and it will be amazing if Austin isn't an injury liability in a real short period of time. Guys Austin's size just don't hold up to the rigors of the NFL. Don't believe me? See the next paragraph.
In the history of the NFL there have only been 6 players Austin's size (5'8" or shorter and under 180 lbs.) that gained over 2,000 receiving yards throughout their entire career. Tim Dwight was the most "dominant" of those players. He lasted 10 years in the NFL, starting only 32 games over that span, and finished his career with 194 receptions for 2,964 yards and 19 TD's. Remember Dante Hall? We know that Hall excelled as a kick returner, amassing over 12,000 return yards and 12 TD's over the course of a 9 year career. On the receiving side? A whopping 162 receptions for 1,747 yards and 9 TD's. The list goes on and on. In trying to defend his lack of size, people often mention several WR's who are similar in size to Austin, such as Steve Smith, Wes Welker, and Desean Jackson. Jackson is a full 2" taller than Austin, but weighs about the same. Jackson has had problems with concussions as the hits pile up and is virtually non-existent in the red zone, where open space is at a premium and size and strength become more important. Smith and Welker are only 5'9", but both weigh 185-190 lbs., and that extra bulk is obvious when you watch them play. Smith plays on the outside, so he's not as relevant here. With Welker however, who plays primarily in the slot, that extra bulk has helped him survive despite playing a position that puts players in prime areas to take multiple bone-crushing hits throughout the course of a 16 game season. Slot receivers take a beating unlike any other position except for RB in the NFL, and Austin's size will be a limiting factor on his long-term impact on an NFL team.
The second issue I have with the Rams drafting Austin is that the Rams don't really have a shortage of players who can play the slot. Pettis does solid work there. Cook can and will be used there and will be a match-up nightmare. But most importantly, Chris Givens is a fast, sure-handed WR with serious YAC ability that did most of his damage in the middle of the field or on go routes - all areas that would be helped by more time in the slot. Givens is a "Joker" in that he provides excellent positional versatility. And, he's already on the team. Over time Givens will be able to improve on his route running and overall on-field awareness and that will only increase his versatility and ability to cause match-up issues for defenses. I really believe Givens has the skill-set to be even better working out of the slot than on the outside. He has rare speed and quickness, but is not overly strong and he struggled on the outside against bigger / more physical corners last year. If you put Givens in the slot more, he'll likely be matched against a safety, nickleback, or even better, a LB, where his relative lack of strength will not be as big of an issue. By lining him up from the inside the Rams can utilize him on quick slants, drag routes, and bubble screens that will allow him to use his speed to make a play with the ball in his hands. The Rams started doing a bit more of that late last season. If Bradford and Givens can get their timing down on those quick slants to where Bradford can use his accuracy to get the ball into Givens' hands quickly and in-stride then we will see a serious rise in passing TD's and big-play ability by the Rams offense.
In short, I believe Austin's biggest selling point - his versatility, will not be fully realized at the next level due to his lack of size and the corresponding need to limit his exposure. I also believe his impact as a receiver will be limited to the slot. History tells us that he will not hold-up to the rigors of the NFL as a feature player. Thanks to the emergence of Chris Givens, the Rams are in good shape when it comes to the slot position, and do not need to draft a WR that doesn't have the positional versatility to help on the outside. I believe the Rams are better served by continuing to add versatile receivers such as Givens and Cook to their roster that can be aligned all over the formation. That is why I think the Rams should pass on Tavon Austin next week.
I have come to the same conclusion regarding Cordarrelle Patterson, although for different reasons. Patterson is this draft's poster boy for the "high risk / high reward" player that is bantered about prior to every draft. Like I stated earlier, all draft picks come with risk, and some positions and players carry more risk than others. Patterson is one of those players who carries high risk not only due to the position he plays but because he is a "raw" prospect that only played one season of D1 football. In addition to his lack of experience, there are certain aspects of his game that I don't like.
Before I go any further, I have to admit that Patterson shows raw athletic ability that is enticing. He's 6'2" and 216 lbs., he can be aligned all over the formation, and has the speed, quickness, lateral agility, and elusiveness to make an impact play from anywhere on the field. Obviously, his size and athleticism work in his favor. But size and athleticism will only get you so far in the NFL, and when you look beyond that, there are issues with Patterson's game that trouble me.
Patterson's lack of experience shows in his game. He doesn't show the speed, quickness, or explosiveness when running routes. He struggles to get off the line against press coverage. His on-field awareness is sorely lacking. He looked lost at times against zone coverage and will have a steep learning curve moving to the NFL, especially when it comes to reading coverages and making adjustments on the fly. Legitimate or not, questions have been raised as to his ability to learn the pro game. If those questions aren't legit, then these shortcomings should be fixable through hard work and coaching. If those questions are legit, watch out. But beyond all that, he also has some tendencies in his game that I don't think are experience related and that I don't like in a WR. One problem I see is that he catches too much with his body - that just doesn't work in the NFL. Another is that he seems like two different players when on the field - a real competitor when he has the ball in his hands, but then he looks disinterested and gives questionable effort when he doesn't, and looks to be coasting from time to time. He doesn't run routes with the same sense of urgency every time, and despite his size he's not really a physical receiver. To me that speaks more to his desire than to a lack of experience. It also reminds me too much of the negative side of Randy Moss. The Rams already have a "raw" talent in Brian Quick. Do the Rams really want to take on another long-term project at WR, especially one that will require the use of a high first round pick and carries as much bust potential as Patterson?
Patterson also didn't impress me when he went against top competition last year. Once again, numbers aren't the end all be all when it comes to WR's but they are part of the puzzle. Patterson was virtually non-existent against the teams he faced that had some NFL talent on them, namely Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi St. If he struggled so badly against teams with some NFL talent, how will he do when everyone he faces is an NFL talent? He didn't fare too well against Missouri or Vanderbilt either. Of the modest numbers he did put up on the season, over 25% of his yardage total came against Troy. Not a lot of NFL talent on that team. Contrast that with Quinton Patton from Louisiana Tech, who's best game last year came in a 21 reception, 233 yard, 4 TD complete destruction of the Texas A&M secondary. The same Texas A&M team that went 6-2 in the SEC, 11-2 overall, beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and crushed Oklahoma 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl. That's what you want to see from a player when they take a step-up in competition.
One last point on Patterson. He wasn't even the primary focus of opposing defenses when they game-planned for the Vols. Justin Hunter was "the guy" that other teams focused on. It was he, not Patterson who faced their #1 corners. That was probably especially true at the beginning of the season when Patterson was still relatively unknown. I think it is fitting then, that in his "Cosell Doctrine" article, Greg Cosell tabs Justin Hunter as the "most physically talented wide receiver prospect in this draft class..." who is, "the most explosive as a route runner..." and has, "...legitimate acceleration and vertical explosion that clearly projects to the NFL..."
The Rams have a fantastic opportunity to do some great things with 4 first round picks in the next two years, but they have to get those picks right. I do not think either Tavon Austin or Cordarrelle Patterson are the right players for the Rams to consider in the first round of next week's draft. If they are going to address the WR position in the first round, I would much rather they select one of the other talented WR's available such as Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins, or Justin Hunter over either Austin or Patterson. There are several other talented WR's that should be available after the first round as well. Players like Aaron Dobson, Robert Woods, Quinton Patton, and Terrance Williams to name a few.
I know this isn't a popular take on things, but it is truly the way I feel. I welcome any comments or discussion you guys care to share. Thanks for reading.