The Chess Piece: Tavon Austin and the Future of Skill Position Players in the NFL
By Robert Mays
Before making his fourth move in five years, Dana Holgorsen needed a little convincing. West Virginia had contacted the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and expressed interest in grooming him to be its next head coach. But prior to any commitments, Holgorsen wanted to see what it was his new home had to offer. So in late fall of 2010, he boarded a plane for Pittsburgh, where he was met by WVU athletic director Oliver Luck. And on they went, the 75 miles south to Morgantown.
Holgorsen’s first request was to see WVU’s indoor practice area, an amenity Oklahoma State had yet to add. The tour moved through the football facilities, and it was there, walking past photos of that year’s team, that Oliver Luck first mentioned Tavon Austin. “One of the first things Oliver did when he walked me through the building was point to a picture of Tavon Austin and say, ‘You need to get that guy the ball as much as you possibly can,’” Holgorsen recalls. “[Tavon] certainly was not shy about wanting the ball, and we certainly weren’t shy about giving it to him.”
During two seasons in Holgorsen’s offense, Austin got the ball plenty — 303 times, an average of more than 11.5 touches per game. As a senior, he caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards. He added another 643 yards rushing, on 8.9 yards per carry. Including kick returns, Austin hit the end zone 17 times. He was, along with USC’s Marqise Lee, one of the two most electric players in college football.
When this year’s draft prospects flocked to Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine, the expectation was that Austin would perform well. Just how well was the surprise. His 4.34-second 40-yard dash was the second-best among all wide receivers, behind only Texas’s Marquise Goodwin. Austin combined that with a surprisingly excellent showing in position drills. “He had one of the best combine field workouts for a receiver that I can remember,” says NFL Network draft analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah. “He ran unbelievably good routes, just explosive in and out of his cuts. Some rare stuff.”
His physical measurements were underwhelming (5-foot-8, 174 pounds), but the weekend still brought with it the requisite post-combine jump. Where Austin might've been considered a late first-round pick before, his name was now attached to teams with picks in the late teens. The more telling rise, though, is the one that’s happened since. In March, Austin was connected with the Rams at 16. By early April, it was the Buccaneers three spots higher. Last week, there were mock drafts penciling Austin in for Buffalo at no. 8. And as of Tuesday, Austin was suggested as a possibility for Philadelphia in the top five. Left with nothing but time and their own thoughts, analysts (and presumably the teams these analysts communicate with) have slowly made Austin the biggest mover of this year’s NFL draft. The reason for that is simple: Tavon Austin is the future of the NFL.
Back in 2008, Lonnie Galloway’s recruiting territory for WVU was mostly limited to Florida. But when a fellow assistant asked him to help coax a kid from Baltimore, the Mountaineers’ wide receivers coach obliged.
As a junior at Baltimore's Dunbar High School, Tavon Austin had rushed for more than 2,500 yards and 32 touchdowns — on an average of almost 13 yards per carry. As a senior, he topped that by 110 yards and two scores. “You could tell every time he touched the field, he was the best player,” Galloway says. “By far. When you used to watch [Michael] Jordan play, you could tell how much better he was than everybody else on the court. That’s how [Tavon] was on the football field. He was just so much better than everyone else.”
Austin was recruited as a running back, and he arrived in Morgantown for the 2009 season, just as Noel Devine was about to begin his second year as West Virginia’s star running back. Austin caught just 15 passes as a freshman, and before his sophomore season began, Galloway approached him about moving out from behind Devine and over to wide receiver. “We just had to find a way to get him on the field and get him the ball,” Galloway says, “because we knew what type of player he could be.” Austin had a fine season, finishing with 58 catches, but it wasn’t until Holgorsen and his Air Raid arrived the following year that his production exploded. As a junior, the number of catches almost doubled, and by the time Austin’s final season at West Virginia began, Holgorsen had mastered how to maximize his star’s impact.
There were brilliant performances in the beginning of the season, during quarterback Geno Smith’s run as the Heisman favorite (13 catches for 179 yards and three touchdowns against Maryland; 14 catches for 215 yards and two scores in a 70-point day against Baylor). Then there was the 50-49 loss against Oklahoma in mid-November. Having carried the ball just 14 times all year, Austin spent the majority of the night lined up in the backfield, and all he did was carve up the Sooners for 344 yards on 21 carries. The total was seven less yards than Oklahoma had given up on the ground in its two previous games combined. "Our plan was off against Tavon Austin,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops told ESPN.com’s David Ubben in March. “They kind of caught us with our pants down, and we didn’t have really an answer.”
Sixteen yards per carry is nice, but where Austin really stirred the offensive imagination was with every other way Holgorsen used him. Austin caught passes out wide, he toyed with safeties forced to cover him out of the backfield, he affected the game in every way a non-quarterback can. Southern Mississippi head coach (and Holgorsen’s successor at Oklahoma State) Todd Monken likens the impact of spread-offense space players like Austin to a gifted slasher on a basketball team littered with shooters. With sound spacing, paths to the rim clear. What sets Austin apart from the rest of those players is the same thing that separates LeBron James. His understanding of which spaces to attack, and how to attack them, is prodigious. Watching Austin catch the ball in the flat against Oklahoma, it’s hard not to imagine flashes of crimson and cream slowing almost to a halt from his vantage point. Our disbelief in how he finds a crease is justified because that crease does not actually exist.
“Tavon fits a whole bunch of different offenses," Holgorsen says, "but when you think of the up-tempo offenses, the spread offenses that have infiltrated college football over the last decade, that’s the guy you think about — the slot guy that’s dynamic with the ball in his hands. He’s a guy you can move around and get him the ball in a variety of ways: line him up in the backfield, motion him out of the backfield, line him up at receiver. That’s what college football has been about, and that’s what you see the NFL kind of going to.”
The near-consensus winners of this NFL offseason have been the Seattle Seahawks, and it’s a title to which they staked a claim before free agency even began. In trading a first-round pick to Minnesota for Percy Harvin, Seattle added one of the league’s exceptional offensive pieces to a unit that topped 40 points in three of its final four regular season games. Harvin isn’t just a name on a depth chart, filling a space in an otherwise established offense; he expands a team’s entire offensive purview. He's a truly transformative player.
Before suffering a season-ending injury last year (in Seattle, oddly enough), Harvin was having his best season to date. Through nine games, he’d caught 62 passes for 677 yards. And even though he missed the final seven games of the season, Harvin still ranked among the league leaders in broken tackles. What made Harvin Minnesota’s first MVP candidate of the season was the endless imagination with which Bill Musgrave used him. On any given play, there was no telling where Harvin would end up after breaking the huddle, or if a bit of motion wouldn’t carry him somewhere else. Harvin lined up in the slot, outside, and in the backfield; he finished the season averaging 4.4 yards per carry on 22 rushes.
Harvin is among a group of players that represent one of the most sought-after offensive elements in today’s NFL — the ability to manipulate formations and schemes without having to change personnel. If the Vikings begin a drive with three wide receivers in the huddle, the defense’s response is likely to counter with a three to four defensive backs. When Harvin lines up at wide receiver, this strategy is sound. When Minnesota makes no substitutions before the next play, and Harvin comes out as a running back, the problems begin.
“What happens when the Patriots come out of the huddle, and [Aaron Hernandez] is in the backfield?” says NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell. “A couple of guys on defense have to go, in so many words, ‘Oh, ****, what’s our adjustment now?’ They’ve probably practiced it, but if it happens on the 16th play of the game — they’ve played 15 plays, they’re in the heat of battle, they haven’t thought about it, and all of a sudden, he’s in the backfield. That could take a little too long, and now the ball is snapped.”
Big, pass-catching tight ends like Hernandez or his teammate Rob Gronkowski have always created matchup problems, but Monken says that as offenses have spread out, conflicts for defenders have become less about size and more about space. By lining Harvin up in the backfield in a passing formation, the likelihood that he’ll be matched up with a linebacker increases. Now the offense is able to exploit soft spots in the defense — notably the flat — with an actual wide receiver.
Early conversations about the draft, Cosell says, are too dominated by intangible words like value. Not enough credence is given to specific plans teams have for players. This schematic-based thinking that coaches bring later in the draft process is part of Jeremiah’s theory about Austin’s sudden rise. “Once you look at the coaches getting involved, then they start looking at it from a schematic standpoint of what they can do with this kid,” Jeremiah says. “You talk about how the game is changing. This is a pretty fun chess piece to have on your offense, and it’s an absolute nightmare to defend on the other side of the ball. You have offensive-minded head coaches saying, ‘Imagine what I can do with this guy,’ and you’ve got defensive-minded head coaches saying, ‘The last thing we need is to play against this guy.’”
For a long time, the NFL, and as a result, the NFL draft, was about prototypes. Players at specific positions were supposed to look a specific way, and those unable to succeed in their predefined roles were left to fail. Pro football today is far more forgiving to its misfits. The signs are everywhere. “You take the old offenses, and you put Wes Welker at X and tell him to go run posts and comebacks and go’s, and he’s out of the league in five years,” Monken says. No player epitomizes the rewards that come with radical thinking more than Russell Wilson.
Austin is that player who stands to benefit most from this willingness to change. “I think that something like Austin, 10, 12, 15 years ago, would’ve been placed in his conventional box of at-best a slot receiver,” Cosell says. “Everyone would’ve been concerned about his size — which is a legitimate concern today — and he would’ve been placed in that category, and that would’ve been it. He might’ve had a chance to excel, or he might not have.”
The main concern about Austin remains his size. Austin is three inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Harvin, and the perceived difference in their NFL ceilings is Harvin’s ability to withstand punishment and fight through contact in the middle of the field. That Austin has become part of the top-10 discussion is a sign that fewer teams are hung up on stature.
A word that’s followed Austin throughout the draft process, and one that seems to have become the chic term for NFL personnel management, is dynamic. “That’s where I think the game has changed,” Cosell says. “People look at these kinds of players and understand that they’re not static players. They’re guys you can move around, use in a variety of ways, and they cause problems.” What’s most important, though, is that the players’ dynamism mirrors that of the league’s thinking. The increased complexity of NFL defenses has forced coaches to create game plans through which they can dictate terms. It’s the players who don’t fit traditional boxes who make that possible. And when Tavon Austin is the first skill player off the board tonight, it'll be no wonder why.
“It’s not surprising to me, seeing him climbing the charts,” Holgorsen says. “He’s the type of kid — the more you see of him, the more you’re around him, the more you want him on your football team.”