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Friday, April 26, 2013
GM: 'Don't be scared to get what you want'

By Mike Sando

Tavon Austin
The St. Louis Rams haven't drafted a receiver in the first round since 1999.
For three years, the St. Louis Rams lacked sufficient offensive weapons to properly support and evaluate prized quarterback Sam Bradford.

They drafted Tavon Austin eighth overall Thursday night to change the dynamic.

The pressure isn't necessarily on Bradford to instantly produce in a huge way or else, but for the first time in the quarterback's career, the Rams have given him a highly drafted and versatile young group of targets to grow along with him.

Bradford is still just 25 years old. He's a few days younger than San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, hard as that is to believe.

Austin, a wideout unlike any other in this draft, just turned 22. Chris Givens, who had a reception of at least 50 yards in five consecutive games as a rookie in 2012, won't turn 24 until December. Brian Quick, a second-rounder last year, turns 24 in June. Austin Pettis is 25 next month. The newly acquired Jared Cook just turned 26. Fellow tight end Lance Kendricks is 25.

The targets for Bradford range in height from the 5-foot-8 Austin to Givens (5-11), Pettis (6-3), Quick (6-3), Kendricks (6-3) and Cook (6-5).

"They're going to create mismatches which are going to have to be dealt with defensively," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said of Austin and Givens in particular.

Austin's selection marked the first time the Rams have used a first-round pick for a receiver since taking Torry Holt sixth overall in 1999. About time, right?

No wide receiver has more than eight touchdown receptions for the Rams since the team drafted Bradford first overall in 2010. Fifty-eight NFL wideouts have at least nine scoring receptions over the same three-year period.

Bradford shares some of the blame, of course. But the supporting cast has let him down too frequently. The offensive line, undermanned and ravaged by injuries, has exposed Bradford to undue punishment. Danny Amendola's injury troubles prevented Bradford from building upon an on-field relationship that appeared so promising at times, including against the 49ers last season.

"Tavon will play a similar position as Danny," Rams general manager Les Snead said by phone Thursday night. "He will also return punts and return kickoffs. And you can do some things with him that may cause defenses to wonder if the play is a throw or a run. Put him with fast tight ends, with our receivers and we're trying to create mismatches."

The Rams could have paid a premium to keep Amendola, arguably their top receiver, from leaving in free agency. They could have paid a few million bucks to keep their other starting receiver, Brandon Gibson.

Instead, the Rams have bet big on their ability to scout fresh talent. They have entrusted Fisher and Snead to build the type of supporting cast Snead helped Atlanta assemble around quarterback Matt Ryan previously. Snead was working under Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff when Atlanta traded up 21 spots in the first round to select receiver Julio Jones sixth overall in 2011.

"They made a larger jump and their team was probably at a more mature state," Snead said of the Falcons. "But we stated all along how we wanted to get this offense weapons."

The move from No. 16 to No. 8 for Austin could be just as significant for the Rams if they're right about Austin possessing unique qualities as a 5-foot-8, 174-pound dynamo with touchdowns as a runner, receiver and return specialist at West Virginia last season. Austin finished the season with 114 receptions for 1,289 yards and 12 receiving scores.

To get Austin, the Rams sent picks in the first, second, third and seventh rounds to Buffalo for first- and third-round choices.

"They did give up a lot," Austin told reporters in St. Louis, "but I'm definitely going to try to work my hardest to give out a lot. I'm going to come out every day at work ready to play."

The first round ended for the Rams with the team moving back from 22nd to 30th in a trade with Atlanta, then selecting outside linebacker Alec Ogletree.

"To be honest, the plan No. 1 was to come away with Tavon Austin and Alec Ogletree, and it worked out," Snead said. "We knew we would have to give up some things to get Tavon. We felt we could recoup some of those things and still get Alec."

Austin's status as the first skill player selected verifies the first part of Snead's statement. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Thursday marked only the fourth time in the common-draft era (since 1967) that no team selected a quarterback, running back or wide receiver before the eighth overall pick. Herman Moore (1991) and Al Toon (1985) went 10th overall in their draft classes. Austin and Larry Csonka (1968) went eighth in theirs.

There can be no denying the Rams got the receiver they wanted.

Rookie wideouts sometimes need time to adjust. Austin should contribute right away on special teams, at least. The biggest challenge could be digesting an NFL playbook. Processing terminology in the huddle can be much tougher than reading simplified signals from the sideline, as the case can be in college.

"I never came out of the big playbook in college [like] they have in the NFL," Austin said. "I did all signals. I don’t know how it’s going to be when I get to the league. That’s probably going to be my biggest challenge right now."

The Rams could still use a starting safety. They could use another running back to round out a backfield featuring committee backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson. Getting a big back Friday should be a priority as the Rams continue to build around Bradford.

"One of the things was, when it tipped and we gave up a second-rounder, our board was looking like the better value for our team and our fits and the roles we want them to execute the next few years was going to be more in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds," Snead said.

The Rams won't be shy. Snead has demonstrated that. A year after the Rams swung a blockbuster trade with the Washington Redskins to secure two additional first-rounders and more, they were navigating their way up the board for Austin.

"You have decisions to make and don't be scared to get what you want," Snead said.