Is a Breakout Ever Going to Come for Tavon Austin?

Is usage or talent holding 2013's eighth overall draft pick back, and will this be the year he breaks out?

On a balmy fall Sunday in St. Louis, we witnessed an aging quarterback’s career revival story kick off, we saw his dominant defense completely shame the opposition, and, most importantly, we saw the beginning of a his teammate’s – a lightning-fast, versatile young wide receiver – breakout season. This player was used as a receiver, a runner, a returner, and excelled at all of them, despite concerns from a year ago about his development and readiness for the league.

If a few things had gone differently in Week 1, those statements could all have been about the St. Louis Rams, quarterback Shaun Hill, their great-on-paper defense, and sophomore slot receiver Tavon Austin.

Instead of Austin receiving Swiss-army knife plaudits, however, we’re cheering about the emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson of the Vikings. Austin, too, is an extremely talented receiver, runner, and returner, so why aren’t the Rams taking a leaf out of the Vikings playbook and using their “offensive weapon” in a similar way? If you have a supremely talented athlete, why wouldn’t you manufacture touches for him in any way possible?

For fantasy owners, should we still hold out hope that Tavon Austin can have a breakout this year, or is this supposedly versatile player just a one-trick pony?

Jack of All Trades

Tavon Austin was – rightfully so – one of the most highly-used players in college football during his West Virginia playing days. To be successful, however, you need to take a copious amount of opportunities and make the most of them; Austin did. Austin ranked 21st in his college career among all NCAA receivers since 1956 with 288 receptions, adding 110 rushing attempts to this total, and 131 kickoff and punt returns. His 2012 senior year yards from scrimmage ranked 9th in the NCAA.

Austin can be a dangerous player in many ways for a team willing to take full advantage of his skill set; his 4,446 yards from scrimmage in four years of college prove as much.

How has his professional coaching staff in St. Louis used him? After being drafted eighth overall in 2013 by the St. Louis Rams, Tavon Austin accumulated 569 total yards from scrimmage on 49 touches (418 receiving yards, 151 rushing yards) in his rookie season, as well as 678 total return yards on 51 returns. The disturbing thing isn’t so much the statistics he racked up, as it's how little he was used. To offer a comparison, the table below shows the basic statistical production of first-round rookie receivers over the last three years in the NFL, ordered by their total opportunities (targets and rushing attempts combined).

RankYearPlayerTeamTouchesOppsScrimmage Yds
12012Justin BlackmonJAX66135888
22011A.J. GreenCIN701211,110
32012Kendall WrightTEN65105630
42011Julio JonesATL701021,015
52013DeAndre HopkinsHOU5293802
62013Cordarrelle PattersonMIN5790627
72012Michael FloydARZ4586564
82013Tavon AustinSTL4978569
92011Jonathan BaldwinKC2152254
102012A.J. JenkinsSF000

It’s pretty flattering to be on a list with the likes of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, but our friend Tavon falls much more on the Jonathan Baldwin and A.J. Jenkins end of the spectrum than the aforementioned receivers. You can’t tell a lot about a player’s future just from box score scouting, but there is something to be said about a team being hesitant to use a player they just spent a top-ten draft choice on.

Austin’s rookie usage does compare pretty favorably to Michael Floyd of Arizona, however, who is in the midst of a breakout third-year campaign. Yet it’s a bit hard to see anything else in common between the profiles of the Rams’ 5’8”, 176-pound speed slot receiver and the Cardinals’ 6’3”, 225-pound number-one wideout. With two fully different roles, projecting similar career trajectories is hardly fair. In fact, as a slot receiver, one would expect Austin to have gotten far more rookie work, and doubly so for a player who was heavily utilized on options and sweep runs in college.

So what gives? Perhaps the Rams were stashing him in order to develop him. In this case, did his rookie work show any promise of things to come?

Master Of None

To answer this question, we not only will look at his statistical usage, but also his metric production via Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a metric developed here at numberFire to measure a player’s true contribution to his team’s success. Instead of looking at a player’s simple box score production, NEP is how much a player advances his team’s chances of scoring on any given play and drive. Read more about NEP in our glossary.

How did Austin compare to his peers in rookie NEP production? The table below shows Austin’s and the other first-round receivers’ scores via Reception NEP (NEP gained on any play resulting in a reception) and Target NEP (NEP gained on any play in which the player is targeted), ranked by Reception NEP.

RankYearPlayerTeamRec NEPTarget NEPRec NEP/Target
12011A.J. GreenCIN97.9442.560.85
22012Justin BlackmonJAX86.2714.820.65
32011Julio JonesATL78.5739.370.83
42013DeAndre HopkinsHOU58.0515.940.64
52012Kendall WrightTEN49.8615.260.48
62012Michael FloydARZ42.5310.400.49
72013Tavon AustinSTL30.695.250.44
82013Cordarrelle PattersonMIN30.28-3.790.39
92011Jonathan BaldwinKC21.46-7.810.41
102012A.J. JenkinsSF0.00-1.070.00

Among the 10 first-round rookie receivers in the last three years, Austin’s rank moves up one spot from the opportunities rankings, suggesting that he produced slightly more value than his chances should indicate. In fact, his per target rate of NEP also indicates that he deserved more chances than the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson. Yet his Reception and Target NEP show even more clearly that Austin’s rookie value deserves to sit solidly behind that of the tiers ahead of him. He was considered a special prospect coming into the league, but Austin’s rookie production pales in comparison even against another slot receiver in Kendall Wright.

Be Prepared

Where does this leave us with our outlook for Austin’s future? Austin is clearly not the kind of game-changing receiver that one would expect to be selected in the top-10 of the draft, but it's interesting to note that he was still one of the more versatile of this group. While he wasn’t overly used, he almost pulls even with Michael Floyd on Total NEP due to his 10.58 Rushing NEP on nine carries in his rookie year. Only Patterson bested him on the ground among these players.

Had the Rams taken advantage of Austin’s unique skill set, he could have been even more productive in Year 1.

For 2014, with quarterback Sam Bradford sidelined for another entire season, the Rams are turning to the barely-average trio of quarterbacks Shaun Hill, Austin Davis, and Case Keenum. These three aren’t going to provide great value to any receivers, but with the Rams needing to rely on their skill position players more to carry the team, there is a reasonable expectation that Austin will benefit. Through two weeks, we’re still not seeing that usage, as he's still just sixth in targets on the team, and fifth in all opportunities. Now Austin will be sidelined for two weeks due to a sprained MCL. While not season-ending or permanently damaging, this injury also doesn't bode well for a player who makes his living with speed and precise cuts.

There are so many ways to implement Austin’s tools, and the Rams don’t appear willing to pursue any of them. Austin doesn’t seem to be a redraft boon, nor much of a dynasty value. Hold him in deeper leagues, but for 2014, it appears the Swiss-army knife will be unnecessary for fantasy owners.