- Ashley Fox
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Tavon Austin is not a bust.
Expectations for the rookie wide receiver out of West Virginia are impossibly high, but understandably so when you factor in that St. Louis gave up a small fortune to select Austin eighth overall in the 2013 draft. The Rams coveted Austin's speed. They liked his ability as a return man. They knew he could be a playmaker either out of the slot or the backfield.
And that's why the Rams swapped their first- and third-round picks with Buffalo and gave the Bills their second-round pick in order to draft Austin, a player they viewed as another young building block for the future.
On paper, Austin is a can't-miss player worthy of being the first skill position player selected in the draft. That the paper hasn't transferred into eye-popping production this early in the season shouldn't come as a gigantic surprise.
The transition from college to the NFL often is hardest for wide receivers. Most are neither physically nor emotionally ready to play in the league as rookies. NFL offenses are complex. The playbook is voluminous. The terminology is different. Defenders are bigger, stronger and faster than in college. The demands of the job – training, practices, meetings, film study – are exponentially more grueling.
So it can take time. And patience. And practice. And experience.
Cincinnati's A.J. Green is the rare exception to the rule that it takes receivers time to have a significant impact in the NFL. As a rookie in 2011, Green caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns as quarterback Andy Dalton's primary target. Green had an impact from the jump.
But look at some of the other big-name receivers in the game today. As a rookie out of Georgia Tech in 2007, Detroit's Calvin Johnson had 48 receptions for 756 yards. In his first season out of Oklahoma State in 2010, Dallas's Dez Bryant had 45 catches for 561. Following a stellar career at Alabama, Atlanta's Julio Jones had 54 catches for 959 yards in his rookie year in 2011.
All of those players went on to have 1,000-yard seasons -- Johnson and Jones did in their second seasons, while it took Bryant until his third year.
It took Roddy White, a rookie in 2005, until his third season to hit the 1,000-yard marker. White struggled as a rookie. He was a fast food junkie. He didn't know how to study. He didn't like to watch film. In his first season in Atlanta, White caught just 29 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns. But with the help of former Falcons receiver Joe Horn and Paul Petrino, then Atlanta's wide receivers coach, White hauled in 83 passes for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns during his breakout campaign.
White learned. He adjusted. He became a film junkie and a foodie. He took care of his body and worked diligently at his craft.
Austin will get there, too.
He has the talent. He was a matchup nightmare at West Virginia, where as a senior he finished second among all FBS players with 2,910 yards from scrimmage, including 1,289 receiving yards and 643 rushing yards.
Although at 5-foot-8, 176 pounds he lacks the size of a Johnson or Bryant, Austin is quick and wickedly fast. St. Louis will find ways to capitalize on that speed, be it with quick slants that will get Austin into the open field where he can exploit slower linebackers or with deep passes where he can use his speed to get behind a nickel cornerback.
It is up to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to figure that out and to be more creative calling plays as the season moves forward.
So far this season, Austin has 23 catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He has not been effective generating yards after the catch, but extrapolate the numbers over the course of a 16-game season and Austin is on pace for 73 catches for 499 yards and six touchdowns. That would be a respectable rookie season. It would be a decent start.
The Rams' offensive line has been inconsistent, which has forced quarterback Sam Bradford to often throw under duress. They have lacked much of a running game -- St. Louis ranks 30th in the NFL, averaging 66.4 rushing yards per game -- and they have gotten zero production out of Isaiah Pead, a second-round draft pick in 2012 out of Cincinnati.
Austin has shown flashes. Against Atlanta in Week 2, he scored two touchdowns. Against Dallas in Week 3, Austin returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown, but the play was negated by a penalty. Against Jacksonville last week, he had three punt returns for 81 yards negated by penalties.
Austin also has had an issue with dropped passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Austin leads the NFL with six drops, two more than any other receiver. Austin didn't have a problem with drops at West Virginia, so it is reasonable to expect that he will correct those mistakes.
For many rookie receivers, it simply takes experience. Austin has too much talent to be a bust. Time will prove that.
Tavon Austin hasn't produced like the top skill player in the draft. But his struggles are hardly surprising for a rookie WR and his future still appears to be plenty bright, writes Ashley Fox.