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Can LA Rams WR Tavon Austin Be A True Receiver Under HC Sean McVay?

So far in his four-year career, LA Rams WR Tavon Austin has been used solely as a gadget player, but can new HC Sean McVay make him a gadget player and a downfield threat?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New York Jets Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Upon being drafted at number eight overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, Los Angeles Rams WR Tavon Austin and his explosive speed and agility brought a level of excitement to the Rams that had not existed in quite some time.

At West Virginia, Austin was used in every way possible. He returned kicks, punts, lined up out wide and in the slot, and played running back. He had a staggering level of success at every single position. He finished his college career with 7,286 total yards, and 40 total touchdowns.

His college success lit Rams nation on fire after the pick, and took this video to new heights...

But since entering the NFL — and now having four full seasons under his belt — Austin has only managed 4,313 total yards and 23 total touchdowns. Not terrible numbers by any stretch of the imagination — especially when considering six touchdowns have been called back — but still far from what most would have expected from the number eight overall pick who can be more electric than anyone in the NFL and had four years to back it up.

New Rams Head Coach Sean McVay will be calling the plays for the Rams this season. It’s been well documented the success he has had with Washington QB Kirk Cousins, and he’s been touted — by more people than just the Rams — as one of the brightest offensive minds in the game today. Unlike in Washington where he had — already established receivers to work with like — WRs Pierre Garcon and Desean Jackson, he will now have the task of working with another young QB in Rams starter, Jared Goff, and a host of young Rams receivers, where as it stands now, Austin is the most established that is under contract for the 2017 season.

Austin signed a new four year contract just before the start of the 2016 season. But from the production that had been put out up until that point, it appears the Rams have overpaid. Now it will be up to McVay to prove that to be false. Our own QBKlass, had an excellent breakdown of what to expect from a McVay offense. Now the hope is that he can keep that philosophy so that players like Austin can have a better chance to thrive. There may be hope he can earn that contract after all...

Often times, the knock on Austin is that he can’t win battles downfield. I beg to differ. His size has nothing to do with his success or even lack thereof til this point. Small receivers have been dominating the NFL for years. It all comes down to route running and creating separation. Although, many have criticized his ability to run good routes down field. In actuality, his route running might be the most improved part of his game. His best route in his bag is the 12 yard option, where he can either break off for a come back to the outside, or take it across the middle for a draino.

The issue thus far has been, he has not been given the opportunity to run those intermediate to deep routes often enough. Instead there has been a lot of this:

Derrik Klassen

Yes! That one route that goes for about 2-6 yards or an incomplete pass because the defense knew it was coming, as the Rams have shown a tendency of running it regardless of what the defense lines up and runs. Though I’ll admit, that scintillating speed, agility, and explosiveness, that Austin possesses can take those short routes and do this every once in a while:

Derrik Klassen

Austin was able to turn this four-yard catch, into a 21-yard gain. However, a better tackler might have brought him down. There’s a lot of these routes that have been called for Austin over the last four years, with the expectation of this as a result, but in actuality the result is far more of the former.

But what happens when you take that same route, and tweak it bit, while in the process expanding its markers?

Derrik Klassen

Here Austin runs his patented out route. However, it’s not quite as simple as it has gained the reputation of being. The Falcons are playing cover three. The weak spots of this zone are the deep outs, intermediate middle, and hooks. Austin is motioned over from the strong side of the formation to the slot. WR Kenny Britt runs a deep skinny post, to clear out the left the corner — who because of the cover three scheme will trail him until he enters his post as the deep safety will then take him — and create a gaping widow underneath. Austin comes off the line looking as if he would be running a draino — a route in which you are dragging over the middle but not flat, you are gaining depth with each yard — but turns it back out towards the sideline. The result is a 20-yard gain.

Derrik Klassen

Here Austin is lined up in the slot against man coverage and runs a corner route. Because the safety has to respect his speed he never even attempts to leave his pre-snap spot of ten yards off. This was key to the success of this play as Austin recognized the distance and upon his release pushed the safety to turn and run. If the safety had been lined up closer or sat on the route longer, he would have began his movement in a backpedal, which would have allowed him an easier transition to plant and change direction. It’s harder to make that change at a full speed sprint when you are reacting as opposed to knowing where you are going. Austin comes off full speed selling the go route, and just as the safety turns and runs full speed with him, he breaks the route creating massive separation, which also allows him time to catch and make a move.

Derrik Klassen

Here we see the same concept as the previous play. However, the safety wisely uses his backpedal to better react to Austin’s movement. Austin notices this and changes his approach to get open. Notice in the previous play, because he is allowed to run full speed — and forcing the safety to turn and run — before breaking the route off, there is no need for a stutter step or to sell anything else because the the full speed go is the sell itself which will only work if the safety does not use his backpedal. As mentioned before the backpedal allows for an easier transition when reacting to the receiver. Both plays are excellent reads by Austin.

Here he recognizes the safety is backpedaling and just breaking his route off would not be wise. When he gets to the top of the his route the safety is in perfect position to jump it. Austin sells inside with a stutter step then breaks off for his corner route. This forces the safety who’s set up to react to whatever the receiver does to fall for the first movement, creating a false step in his change of direction and giving Austin separation to stack him and dictate where the window will be for the QB to throw the ball (also great touch on the throw from Goff).

Derrik Klassen

This play shows Austin being allowed to show of his speed. Here he’s simply going to exploit cover two deep. The soft spots in this scheme are the intermediate seams, intermediate to deep sidelines, and the deep middle. The Cardinals are running a funky version as they used their strong safety down in the box, and had CB Patrick Peterson drop to cover the other deep half. Austin comes off the line, and just flat out pushes the already 15 yards deep safety into a 25 yards deep back pedal.

Because the safety is seeing Austin coming full speed selling the go route, he never allows Austin to get within eight yards of him in an attempt to not let anything get over the top. When Austin breaks this route, the separation is already created through the fear of the go route. Because of his speed and with Peterson coming from the other side — and finally sees him — its too late, Austin has already gotten behind him. He splits the deep coverage and makes the catch for 47 yards, and had the ball not been slightly under-thrown, could have gone the distance.

Derrik Klassen

This is what using Austin downfield can create more of. One thing about screens; if the defense is not respecting the possibility of the ball going deep, it will not work. If the defenders are in man and are pressed, they can break on screen passes and either make the tackle or worse. It’s much harder for the outside receivers and lineman to make the blocks when the defense is flooding the line of scrimmage.

In this play before the snap, the defense is off the ball showing cover three, to protect the middle, flats, and deep three thirds of the field, because it was third down. They were expecting pass, but were looking for something deep or quick to the outside or middle. While the pass was indeed quick, it was a screen where when Austin caught it, the closest defender was five yards away and being blocked by Britt. This allows Austin to show off his vision, agility, and speed as he sets up blocks, makes people miss, and turns on the jets. There are very few human beings alive that can split two defenders attempting to make a tackle the way he did, leaving both on the ground reach for air.

Austin has not had the production one would expect from a receiver taken number eight overall four years ago. But he also hasn’t been given the right opportunities that often either. Could he drop less passes? Absolutely, there’s no excuse for some of his drops as they were without contact and once turned into an interception. The 2016 season was his worst season with drops as he had seven. This left him in a five way tie for third worst in the NFL. However, it’s far from a consistent issue, Austin has only had six total drops over the previous two seasons in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Whereas, players like Mike Evans, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall, and Michael Crabtree, can be found in the top 15 yearly. In fact his drop rate of 3.5% in 2015, was one of the ten lowest in the NFL for receivers with at least 85 targets. This makes it hard to point to drops being the issue for the slightly below average production over the last four years.

So here’s to coach McVay understanding that Austin can be a legitimate receiver, and not just a gadget player, and to find a way to capitalize on his explosiveness down field more often, so that the world can see less plays that result in five-yard completions, and more plays that result like these..

(The route ran at the 4:29 mark is a prime example of him mastering that comeback route to the outside)