Can Tavon Austin Develop Into the Rams’ Deep Threat?

The Rams need a deep threat, and Austin has speed to burn. Can he become a legitimate downfield option?

We were often told as kids that television would “rot your brain” and that nothing good would come from technology. I have to say, though, I have learned a lot about life, work, and love from watching television -- specifically the show How I Met Your Mother.

Neil Patrick Harris’s character, Barney Stinson, imparts useful and sometimes crude life lessons to his friends, but the best advice the show has given is simple. One episode, for instance, shows the disappointment fallout of ridiculous expectations -- helping the audience to understand that sometimes things just are what they are, and that’s okay.

I wish the Los Angeles Rams and coach Sean McVay would have learned a little more from TV, because they are really barking up the wrong tree by trying to turn slot receiver Tavon Austin into a deep threat.

Can the Rams surpass “the possimpible” with Austin’s role conversion, or will this effort just be a slap in the face?

Challenge Accepted

It’s no secret that the Rams need to develop some sort of deep passing threat in their offense. Per Pro Football Reference, the 2016 Rams attempted the second-fewest passes 20 yards or more downfield of any team, completing them at a middle-of-the-pack 38.2 percent first-down rate and giving up the fifth-most interceptions on them.

When going deep, Los Angeles has been mediocre at best and awful at worst.

Part of that is on the quarterback talent they had -- Case Keenum doesn’t inspire fear in anyone and Jared Goff has a long way to go -- but they also haven’t had wide receivers with the skillset to really do much long. Last year, the two receivers targeted downfield at the highest rate were Brian Quick -- who had a career catch rate below 50 percent up until the 2016 season -- and Kenny Britt, whose possession receiver profile should not be seeing 31.1 percent of his targets deep over the last three years.

This offseason both Quick and Britt walked in free agency, and the Rams replaced them with former Buffalo Bills possession receiver Robert Woods (12.1 career yards per reception; league average is 13.2) and rookie Cooper Kupp -- a Jordan Matthews-type wideout, only slightly smaller, much slower, and way less explosive.

Enter Tavon Austin.

Rabbit or Duck

Tavon may share the same last name as the protagonist of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” but Sean McVay has clearly been watching too much of the wrong show. According to interviews from OTA’s, McVay thinks we have the technology to rebuild the diminutive slot receiver and make him “better than he was before.”

He might be lucky to get to a six-dollar bid in fantasy auctions this year, let alone live up to his sort-of-namesake.

Still, McVay has insisted that Austin has the chops to convert from a gadget player and part-time speed slot to a DeSean Jackson-like vertical option. He sure has the physical comparison nailed, as D-Jax and John Brown are Austin’s best matches on MockDraftable based on their NFL Combine performances.

Measurable Austin Jackson Brown
Height 5' 8" 5' 10" 5' 10"
Weight 174 lbs 169 lbs 179 lbs
Arm Length 30" 29¾" 30½"
Hand Size 9⅛" 9⅜" 8½"
10-Yard Split 1.45s 1.53s 1.5s
40-Yard Dash 4.34s 4.35s 4.34s
Vertical Jump 32" 34½" 36½"
Broad Jump 120" 120" 119"
3-Cone N/A 6.82s 6.91s
Short Shuttle 4.01s 4.19s 4.12s

Tavon is about as perfect a physical clone for these two deep threats as you could draw up. So why are we so sour on his chances of becoming something more than he is right now?

When we pick apart Austin’s production from an analytical standpoint, it doesn’t look great. Using numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can check out Austin’s true efficiency and effectiveness. NEP is a metric which describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. (For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.)

Let’s look at the basics: in 2016, Tavon Austin created 0.27 Reception NEP per target on 106 looks in the passing game. That was by far the worst such rate for a receiver with at least 100 targets among the 619 such receivers to match that workload since 2000. His 65.52 percent Reception Success Rate (the percent of catches a receiver converts into a positive NEP gain) was by far the worst such rate in this metric.

It goes beyond last year, though. A player with a career yards per reception of 9.07 should have a much better Success Rate and catch rate, since it’s a lot harder to mess up a three-yard pass than a 20-yard pass. Austin’s career catch rate of 57.3 percent is ridiculous when compared to the league’s 68.5 percent mark on short targets in the last five years. In fact, no other wide receiver has had a career yards per reception lower than Austin on as many targets in the 25 years since targets have been tracked.

Austin has been gloriously ineffective and tremendously inefficient -- not only being relegated to a low-value, short-yardage role (which he was), not only having bad quarterback play (which he did), but also proving unable to create tiny amounts of value regularly. But it gets worse.

Sorry, Bro

The best way to isolate a player’s value by Reception NEP is to look at how they stack up compared to other pass catchers in their own offense. I compared each wide receiver's Reception NEP per target, catch rate, and Success Rate to their team average for wide receivers, which gives us context about the player in their specific offense. The table below shows Austin’s production and rankings among the 41 wideouts to top 100 targets last year in these metrics.

Team-Adjusted Rec NEP/Target Rank Catch Rate Rank Rec Success Rate Rank
Tavon Austin -0.25 41st -2.73% 33rd -10.16% 41st

The Rams had the league's worst offense by adjusted Passing NEP per play last year in a scheme that favored short throws, so adjusting receiver production for team should help nudge Tavon's value up a little bit; but even when we grade Austin on this curve, he still looks terrible.

Let's give him another benefit of the doubt and say we eliminate all the deep threat players entirely when we consider Austin's 2016 season. Just comparing him to other receivers with similarly low-value roles (by per-catch Reception NEP), he comes in 28th, 22nd, and 22nd (respectively) out of 30 receivers in the same three metrics as above.

Austin just isn't going to be an effective deep threat if he cannot consistently catch throws from the easiest spots on the field. While a deeper role will certainly offer him more per-play value in Reception NEP, his inability to make plays in a short-yardage role gives me concerns about his ability to both secure the ball and do anything with it, no matter how far downfield he's thrown at.

Tavon Austin was a questionable pick for the Rams when they selected him in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He was a questionable extension candidate last year when lame duck coach Jeff Fisher dropped a six-year, $56.1 million contract in his lap last August. Los Angeles needs to stop expecting a “happily ever after” finale from this saga: Tavon simply is what he is.