Austin shows improvement for roster spot

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The strength has always been there. So, too, has Rodney Austin's intelligence. Coaches never questioned those things. Players usually won't stick long in the NFL if at least one or, preferably both traits, were already present.

Austin is in his third season now and a different level of expectations comes with it. He gets that. So do the coaches. It's why right now, he is in the midst of a critical camp for him.

Unlike the last two seasons, Austin put himself in a position to make the Lions' 53-man roster provided one thing -- he showed Detroit he could be consistent.

"He has," Detroit offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn said. "He just has to continue to do it. You can see why guys make it in the league and why they don't and he's at that tipping point right here of can he be a consistent pro.

"He flashes all the time. He's an athletic, strong person and he's very intelligent. He just has to be consistent and that's the key to being an offensive lineman in the NFL."

Austin's went undrafted in 2012 out of Elon and signed with Detroit. He ended up on the practice squad both in 2012 and 2013, where he became one of the bigger personalities in the Lions locker room.

Tennessee expressed interest in signing him, but the Lions saw enough potential to keep him and signed him onto the 53-man roster on Nov. 27, 2013. He was inactive for games until the final week of the season, when he played on special teams against Minnesota.

Now, he understood what it means to be active on game days and there was more expected of him. Instead of purely developing him, he entered camp in a fight for a legitimate roster spot as a reserve offensive lineman and potential future starter on the line.

"This is my third year, of the three [camps] here, this is probably my best," Austin said. "I think it just goes back to my confidence level. Coming in my rookie year, I kind of overwhelmed myself just thinking how many people were ahead of me and thinking about the reps and things I'm getting.

"Last year added to my maturity and then going through the spring and this camp, it's just a growing process in the maturity of a young offensive lineman that I'm going through. I understand the process and I'm taking full advantage of it."

The consistency, however, is still a work in progress. Against Oakland, he gave up a sack when he was supposed to pick up the first man on a two-man blitz. Instead, he and the running back went to the second man, leaving the first rusher with an unimpeded path to quarterback Dan Orlovsky, leading to a sack and eventually forcing a 55-yard field goal from Nate Freese.

The difference now is Austin understands immediately the mistake he made and how he needs to correct it. Not that he's more aware this year, but he is picking up how to fix any errors faster.

He's also tweaked his aggression -- passion and aggression have never been issues -- into a more manageable style of play. That has been noticed by other linemen.

"He's calmed down a whole bunch," guard Larry Warford said. "That's one of the things that's really important or an offensive lineman, the difference between being aggressive and being physical. I feel like if you're too overaggressive you lose your technique and you get off balance a whole bunch.

"I think he's calmed down a whole lot, but he still uses great power in everything that he does. He's really improved a whole bunch since last year."

The Lions coaches see that, too, and have been giving him opportunities. He often played with the first unit when the coaches gave starting left guard Rob Sims snaps off and he developed chemistry with other linemen.

"It helped me with my development," Austin said. "I use every day that I'm given here as an opportunity to get better, whether I'm making all the plays or making a mistake or not.

"I try to use whatever I do to teach myself what to do in the future."