The stars seem to have a way of aligning for Tavon Austin.
The West Virginia product's draft stock soared after a strong combine performance, vaulting him from a late first round projection at the start of the mock draft process to a top 15 commodity by the end of April. Most projections still fell shy of the mark when the Rams made Austin the eighth name called at Radio City Music Hall this April.
For the Rams, the selection will pay immediate dividends on the field in the name of long receptions and game-changing touchdowns. The phrase "Greatest Show on Turf" will become a proud and distant chapter of Rams history instead of a source of longing for the city of St. Louis. And it all begins in the '13-'14 season, one that will culminate with Tavon Austin hoisting the Offensive Rookie of the Year hardware. The prediction can be made this early for a simple reason; no other rookie has the combination of talent and opportunity to challenge his numbers.
Austin has been placed in a great position to succeed as a flexible offensive weapon working out of a developing offense. One of his greatest assets at West Virginia was his versatility to line up at multiple spots on the field, including the backfield.
West Virginia gave Austin 72 totes in 2012, which he turned into 643 yards in addition to his 1289 yards worth of receiving and some work in the return game. His 4.34 40 yard dash only reaffirmed the belief that Austin could be the type of game-changing hybrid that has given traditional defenses headaches over the past few seasons.
Rams coaches are already jumping aboard the all-out-Austin train. Brian Schottenheimer’s scheme has resembled something of a pinball machine during OTAs when it comes to incorporating his new toy into the offense. Austin has taken handoffs as well as lining up in the slot during minicamp, and by all accounts has done so with flying colors. Jeff Fisher is already making the love for his first round pick obvious, telling the media that the Rams are going to get the ball to him as often as possible. And this is coming from the mind that engineered one of the most slot-heavy offenses in the league last season.
To say that touchdowns have been a rarity during the Sam Bradford era would be an understatement. However, it is fair to note that Bradford’s development over three years in the NFL have by no means been conducive to success.
The revolving door at wideout has given way to the arrival and subsequent departure of Brandon Gibson, Laurent Robinson, Danario Alexander, Brandon Lloyd, and Danny Amendola since 2010. All have been top three receivers under Bradford, all have been (or still are) viewed as respectable players, but not one resembles the kind of go-to option that helps a budding quarterback flourish. Think Calvin Johnson for Matthew Stafford. Think Reggie Wayne for Andrew Luck.
Instead, Bradford was given an island of misfit toys, a terrible offensive line, and an all-purpose stud named Steven Jackson who remained the complete focal point of the offense as if the team had never invested its’ first round pick in a new quarterback. Now, the offense has been gutted, the old guard changed. Out are Jackson, Amendola, and famously futile left tackle Wayne Hunter. In their place are freak-of-nature tight end Jared Cook, Pro Bowl bookend Jake Long, and, of course, speedster Tavon Austin.
Steven Jackson has made his way to Atlanta, and the running back situation has been left in flux. Sam Bradford and Tavon Austin probably won’t be complaining. Bradford is ready to take the next step toward earning his draft chops, and his revamped receiving core is ready to make it happen. Brian Quick will line up as the number one option and Jared Cook will command more of a presence in standard sets, but Austin is likely to see the most targets from day one amidst the band of inconsistent athletes that staff the majority of the offense. As a four year college player, Austin will have the chance to fill an immediate offensive leadership void along with Bradford that will build chemistry from day one. Bradford is on the verge of a breakout season, but can only accomplish the task with a consistent receiving threat to gobble up his intermediate passes. No Ram is suited better for the task than Austin, and the role of Sam Bradford’s most trusted option will only represent a portion of his overall impact.
If Danny Amendola’s ‘12/’13 performance is any barometer for Austin’s expectations, (given their comparable physical stature and role in the offense, they are) then the statistical barometer should be set somewhere between dominant and unstoppable. Amendola missed five games last season due to injury, but still managed to draw 101 targets when on the field, good for 50th in the league. Had he played a full slate of games, Amendola would have been on pace for 147 targets and about 970 yards, a statline that would have topped a list of players that includes Torrey Smith, Tony Gonzalez, and Mike Wallace in both categories.
And while Amendola has worked his way up the gridiron ladder to become Wes Welker’s heir in New England, he has done so with credentials that pale in comparison to his own replacement in St. Louis. Austin was selected in the first round while Amendola went undrafted. Amendola ran a 4.58 40 yard dash that while Austin blazed ahead at 4.34. Amendola only carried the ball twice last season, a ceiling that Austin could shatter in his first game if there is substance behind Fisher’s talk. Amendola has already missed nearly two seasons worth of games (28) while Austin has no injury history to speak of. Major advantage, Tavon Austin. Hello 1000 yard season, hello number one offensive threat, hello healthier version of Percy Harvin.
Competition is always half the battle when it comes to taking home an end of season honor, and in that regard there does not appear to be many players between Austin and the number one spot. The 2013 draft was known as the year of the offensive lineman. None of the nine first round blockers will garner consideration for the award based on history. The quarterback class was well documented as one of the most underwhelming in recent history. Barring an unexpected outbreak from E.J. Manuel or Geno Smith next season, the Offensive Rookie of the Year should most likely be handed to a receiver or running back.
Based on a combination of opportunity and draft stock, Montee Ball, Aaron Dobson, Eddie Lacy and Le’Veon Bell look like the only other rookies within shouting distance of Austin’s projection.
Dobson is anything but a sure thing under Bill Belichick's ever-morphing offense and will have to make a major adjustment to the pro game after playing his college ball at Marshall. Bell projects as a plodding power-back for a Steelers team that came away unsatisfied with a committee that included Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, who possess a similar style. Lacy is a bit of a wild-card but is mired behind what has been a quietly poor offensive line in Green Bay, not to mention having the best quarterback and receiving core in football taking away touches. Ball could end up on the backburner as easily as he could become the feature back in Denver, especially after the way that Knowshon Moreno played in last year’s playoffs.
Stranger things have happened, but it certainly does appear that Austin will be given the most direct line to rookie stardom this season. Now is the time to rally support behind Tavon Austin as the early frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Other bandwagon fans will join the party in due time. They always do.