What Should We Make of Tavon Austin's Rookie Season?
As a rookie coming out of West Virginia, Tavon Austin was seen as a versatile playmaker on offense who could be a scoring threat in any type of scheme. His dynamic speed and ability was expected to translate to early success in the NFL. Unfortunately, success wasn’t found often in his rookie season.
For the 2013 season, Austin played in 13 games, started only three, and totaled 40 receptions for 418 yards and 4 touchdowns. Those total numbers aren’t terrible for a rookie receiver, but they look much worse after realizing 138 of those yards came on two receptions in Week 10 against the Indianapolis Colts. In 10 of the games Austin appeared in, he had less than 40 receiving yards. In the two other games, Austin had 41 and 47 yards, which came in Weeks 1 and 2.
The advanced metrics are even more bearish on the receiver’s season. According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) numbers, Austin had a 30.69 Reception NEP last year. That placed him between T.J. Graham, who had just 26 receptions for the Buffalo Bills, and Greg Little, who might have been the NFL’s worst receiver. That’s not company any receiver wants to be in, let alone one taken with the eighth overall pick in that season’s draft.
So why did any of this happen?
There were a few factors that led to Austin’s underwhelming season. The first problem was St. Louis’ struggle to figure out how to use him. Austin’s career high in receptions (six) was tied three weeks in a row during the first three weeks of the season. At this point, the Rams figured Austin was a playmaking threat who should have the ball in his hands. They did that by forcing the ball to Austin without worrying about the efficiency of those plays, hoping he would perform some type of magic trick and score.
In Week 1, four of his receptions were from short flat or drive routes hoping to get Austin in space. An early recurring problem was the lack of downfield blocking allowing defenders to be on top of Austin a step after he caught the ball. On his biggest reception of the game, a 14-yard gain on a slant, Austin would have scored a touchdown if the ball had hit him in stride - another recurring issue. The next two weeks were similar in a game plan sense.
Without figuring out an ideal way to use Austin in the offense, he started to just disappear. He would catch five passes or more in just one game for the rest of the season, which was Week 7 against the Carolina Panthers. For the season, he was the targeted receiver on just 69 passes, leading to a 5.25 Target NEP. Austin was targeted less than Donnie Avery, Aaron Dobson and Jason Avant, and his Target NEP score - which measures the number of points added by a player on all targets that come his way - ranked 81st out of the 105 pass-catchers with 20 or more receptions.
Those target numbers break down to just 5.3 targets per game. Considering Austin caught six passes in each of the first three weeks, that isn’t a promising trend as the season went along.
Hands and Hesitation
Austin was partly at fault for some of his shortcomings last season. There were passes thrown around Austin’s area he wasn’t able to bring in. Some of this was poor quarterback play and a generous definition of “area,” but other times he either dropped the ball from a lack of concentration or attempting to make a move before he secured the football.
Some of this was due to his role in West Virginia’s offense. Austin was utilized better, especially out of the backfield, and wasn’t forced to make many contested catches in tight coverage.
Other times, after Austin caught the ball, he hesitated a little too long before making his cut upfield. While this might have worked at the college level, NFL defenders are much too fast and were able to make a play on Austin within a step or two after the reception. When trying to utilize space, having a defender draped on you within one step is a bold strategy, which rarely worked out.
Did Anything Go Right?
Most will point to the Week 10 game against Indianapolis as the high point of Austin’s season. Statistically, it’s hard to argue against 138 receiving yards and two touchdowns even if they did only come on two total receptions. The first 57-yard touchdown was wide open, and not scoring would have been the more impressive feat. The second reception for the 81-yard touchdown is what everyone was imagining Austin could do in the NFL. In a short crossing route, Austin immediately turned upfield after he caught the ball and burned past the Indianapolis defense for the score.
Another positive sign was the end-of-season long rushes. Austin excelled out of the backfield in college, and two of his last three games had runs of 65 and 56 yards. Though keeping with the trend, they were his only rushing attempt of each game.
As is the case for any position, the first season is the biggest adjustment. Many receivers see a spike in performance during their Alshon Jeffery had a Receiving NEP of 30.47 and Target NEP of 5.59 in his rookie season, numbers similar to Austin, before recording 117.41 Receiving NEP and 60.32 Target NEP last year. Clearly those are two different types of receivers, but a rebound is possible after just a single season.
The Schottenheimer Effect
Unfortunately, there are still some obstacles to clear for an improvement next season.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. That familiar proverb was made popular by William Edward Hickson sometime in the 1800s. This season, the St. Louis Rams are on that third try with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and quarterback Sam Bradford. The first two tries with that duo could lead even Hickson to advocate for change before the third. However, the Rams stood pat in the offseason, without making a change at quarterback or offensive coordinator. That might not be the best thing for Austin, or any part of the St. Louis offense next season.
In his eight years as an offensive coordinator, Schottenheimer has only had two receivers record over 1,000 yards in a season. Those seasons were in his first two years with the New York Jets, Laveranues Coles in 2006 and Jerricho Cotchery in 2007. Those were also the only two seasons a receiver had a Reception NEP above 80.00, which is what you'd see from a player barely breaking the top 30 at the position. Cotchery’s high yardage in ‘07 wasn’t very efficient though, as he only had a Target NEP of 19.94.
Schottenheimer has been criticized for his vanilla scheme and game planning. The criticisms were justified at points during the season when not only did he struggle with how to effectively use Austin in the offense, he struggled how to include Austin in the offense at all.
Bradford, though, hasn’t fared any better with receivers since coming into the league. There has yet to be a Rams receiver to gain 700 yards or more in season since Bradford’s rookie year. Only two receivers had seasons with a Reception NEP over 50.00: Brandon Gibson had a 71.11 Reception NEP in 2012 and Danny Amendola did it twice with a 50.15 Reception NEP in 2010 and a 52.33 Reception NEP in 2012.
While there are some signs to suggest a talented player like Austin can see an increase in productivity from year one to year two, that might have to be put on hold for at least a year until the Rams can surround him with anyone who can best utilize his skill set.