You don't need a high-level security clearance or a pile of papers from Edward Snowden to know that the St. Louis Rams plan to feature Tavon Austin in their offense. After all, general manager Les Snead swapped his way into the top-10 picks of the 2013 NFL Draft to grab the West Virginia product.
That said, neither the CIA or NSA could figure out how exactly the Rams plan to use the speedy rookie this season.
"We have a pretty good idea, but we haven't shown it," Jeff Fisher said during a Tuesday appearance on the Jim Rome show. "He's not had a lot of production, per se, in the preseason only because it makes sense to hold those type of things for the regular season."
Austin flashed his gifts on punt returns in the preseason, highlighted by an 81-yarder that might have gone for a touchdown had Austin's fellow first-round pick Alec Ogletree not gotten in the way. But Austin's work on offense so far been limited to a few dink and dunky passes with the offense.
Based on what Austin's said and we've seen at practice, we know the Rams have lined him pretty much everywhere that a coach can put a skill player, the slot, flanker, split end, backfield, etc. And why not, with his speed and skills, Austin is exactly the kind of player teams covet in today's NFL.
Fisher also admitted on Rome's show that a young, inexperienced team could stumble on occasion. With that in mind, it's reasonable to set realistic expectations for Austin's first-year numbers.
Only 49 rookie wide receivers since the 1970 merger have topped the 800-yard mark in their first season. It's not an easy mark to attain.
Of course, Austin's work in the backfield has to be factored into any prediction for his debut season. No rookie listed primarily as a wide receiver has had more than 20 rushing attempts in his first season (this excludes current Seahawks H-back Michael Robinson who was listed as a WR upon first appearing with the 49ers). The closest was Antwaan Randle El in 2002 with 19 carries and 47 catches.
Only four players have had at least 15 rushing attempts and 40 receptions in their first season.
|Antwaan Randle El||2002||23||PIT||19||134||7.05||0||8.4||47||489||10.40||2||30.6|
I think it's safe to say that 15 rushing attempts and 40 catches is a modest, minimal expectation for Austin this season, based on what we've seen in practice and public pronouncements from the team's brass. You also have to factor in Austin's punt return duties. Together, it adds up to a lot of work for a 5'8, 176-pound player.
Fantasy football general managers and anyone else banking on big numbers from Austin in his rookie season might want to temper their expectations a bit. Something else to consider are the roles Chris Givens and Jared Cook will play in the offense. There are only so many targets to distribute throughout the season.
Austin may not finish the season with gaudy counting stats, but he should be featured in more than a few highlight reels thanks to his big play potential. And that's where his value to the offense gets tough to quantify. His playmaking ability will be hard for defenses to ignore. They'll have to account for him, even if he's not getting the ball. Fine. More space for Cook, Givens and the others.
But what's the fun in imagining a defense simply accounting for Austin? We want to know more about these secret plans. Fortunately for us, we have some insight, courtesy of Ben Muth, from Football Outsiders and SB Nation. He wrote this terrific piece earlier in the month about how the Rams might use Austin, based on what teams have done with similar players like Randall Cobb, Percy Harvin, etc.
One of my personal favorites comes about halfway through the piece, with Cobb lined up in the backfield and the Packers in shotgun. The tight end and the line are set up in a basic blocking formation, one they use time and again on a variety of plays. No easy clues for the defense prior to the snap.
The simplicity of the play is the real lesson though. Cobb gets the ball for an outside run. The blockers make their blocks, and Cobb comes shooting out one-on-one with a safety. That safety does everything right to stop the play, but because this is Cobb and not some ordinary running back, he beats him with his sheer athleticism.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy followed a basic premise of football on this play. I'll let Muth explain:
You put your best players in space to make plays and they'll come through more often than not. Here the Packers just subbed Cobb in at a new position and ran a base play from their running game that happened to fit what Cobb does well. Simple.
We love secret plans. We love hearing about secret plans. Mystery is an exciting thing. But with a player like Austin, the best plan may be the simplest one.
Continuity has been this year's top buzzword out of Rams Park. Sam Bradford knows the offense. He's comfortable with it. Depending on how you read that oft-repeated talking point, it could be a positive sign that the Rams plan to use Austin to make their existing plays better, rather than designing a playbook appendix of gimmicks for him.