Nov 10, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin (11) runs a punt return back for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Can Tavon Austin be a WR1 in Fantasy Football Next Season?

Editor’s note: This is a guess post from Kevin Roberts of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow Fantasy Football Overdose on twitter at @NBAandNFLInfo, and for more information on the NFL visit Fantasy Football Overdose – your online source for anything about fantasy football.

 

The St. Louis Rams knew they needed to make a change on offense heading into last year’s offseason. Danny Amendola was hitting free agency and wasn’t reliable due to numerous injuries, and the Rams didn’t have another wide receiver on the roster that appeared to be a legitimate, No.1 wide receiver.

Protection and the running game are certainly one thing, but Jeff Fisher and Co. had to know that Sam Bradford’s development could only go so well without the proper weapons in the passing game. They realized the problem, and made some solid adjustments. Jared Cook was brought in to make the tight end position more explosive, and the Rams swung a massive trade to get up into the Top 10 of the 2013 NFL Draft so they could secure West Virginia’s Tavon Austin.

The problem? After one season, it’s tough to say if Austin can be the guy the Rams were hoping he’d be. In fact, heading into this year’s draft, the Rams are once again expected to be on the prowl for that No.1 wide receiver.

From what we’ve seen, Austin simply isn’t that. His small stature opens the door to durability concerns down the road, and, at least for now, also limits his effectiveness in the redzone. Austin also had a raw component to his game. He’s not yet an elite route-runner, so St. Louis had to work hard to manufacture his touches in his first season.

It looks and sounds bad at first, but this isn’t the end of the road for Austin. The Rams openly admitted they needed to do a better job of getting Austin the ball, while Sam Bradford (knee) going down and missing half the year certainly didn’t help in that progression.

We also need to consider that the kid was a rookie. Jared Cook didn’t help draw much of the defense’s attention away from Austin and the receivers, either. Cook blew up for one massive game in Week 1, and quite arguably disappeared for the other 15 contests.

On top of downgrading their signal caller from Bradford to the below average (and that’s putting it nicely) Kellen Clemens, the Rams also shifted their offensive philosophy to a ground-and-pound team. Zac Stacy exploded onto the scene as a productive workhorse back, and the Rams simply passed much less than they would if Bradford were healthy.

And while we’re making excuses for Austin, why not make a comment on his brutal division? Not only was he a raw rookie, under-sized, improperly and under-utilized, and playing without his top quarterback… he also was trying to get open against the rugged corners of the NFC West. You know, the likes of Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Patrick Peterson. And even when he wasn’t being locked down by a stud corner, a stout San Francisco defense was making the Rams one-dimensional enough to make it easy to prevent Austin from going nuts.

So, what do fantasy football owners make of Tavon Austin as a rookie? And more importantly, how should they project him going into 2014?

Firstly, try to come to terms with the fact that Austin failing to live up to the preseason hype wasn’t all his fault. In fact, it probably wasn’t even half his fault.

Fantasy experts and NFL analysts alike hyped him up from the beginning, as if he was the second coming of Percy Harvin and nothing would stop him from being a machine.

In the end, Austin hauled in just 40 receptions in 2013. The worst part? That number paced Rams wide receivers.

While Austin himself was inconsistent and only had a handful of big plays, St. Louis clearly did not pass a ton, and even when they did, they simply didn’t get good production from under center. Need a clearer picture? Austin’s 40 catches were the fewest to lead the Rams in receptions since 1986.

That’s a hop, skip and a flight to Thailand and back.

But let’s stop focusing on Austin’s surroundings from 2013 and what made his rookie season a letdown. Let’s start tossing up some praise and looking to the future.

Despite only getting 40 receptions, Austin was initially a huge part of the game-plan, recording six catches in three straight games to start his NFL career. He wouldn’t catch more than five passes again for the rest of the season, but the quarterback change obviously played into that.

Needless to say, with Austin improving, knowing the offense and having Bradford back, we can safely bet his role will only increase. We can’t be certain that he’ll suddenly see a dramatic leap from his 10.5 yards per reception, but we can probably bank on 15-20 more catches, at the least.

Another issue is that Austin missed three games due to injury. This can play into concern about his long-term durability, but it can also explain poor overall numbers a bit, as well.

Next up is Austin’s lack of use in the running game. His big thing coming out of West Virginia was his versatility, yet the Rams used him just nine times out of the backfield as a runner. That’s on them. After all, he took those nine carries for a quality 151 rushing yards and a touchdown. Yet, for some reason, he never ran the ball more than twice in one game, and even did that just once.

Needless to say, this is another area where Austin is expected to get more involved in 2014. Nine rushes is far too few for a player so versatile and explosive. Closer to 25-30 could be, and should be, expected.

There’s also the return game. Not every league awards fantasy points for return yardage and scores, but the ones that do will have you valuing Austin even more.

He actually had under 400 kick return yards and only one punt returned for a touchdown, but it’s conceivable that his role in both departments increases next season.

Incoming help via the draft and/or free agency is the last tidbit fantasy owners need to consider when projecting Austin for 2014. If the Rams can finally bring in a solid #1 guy, it will take pressure and focus off of Austin, allowing him to roam free in the slot and get more involved as a runner, as well.

Heading into 2013, I projected Austin to get 70-75 total touches. Not counting return duty, he didn’t even crack 50 last season. I was wrong the first time, but in 2014 I think the 70-75 is a lot more realistic.

All this being said, Austin absolutely is not a WR1 in fantasy football and it’s impossible to predict whether or not he will be. He clearly is a dynamite play-maker in open space and has the speed and elusiveness to be a terror. But if he can’t develop his route-running and progress as an asset in the red-zone, his upside might actually be capped.

The real question is, is he going to be the next Percy Harvin/DeSean Jackson, or is he going to be the next Ted Ginn? Only time will tell, but for now he can’t be drafted as anything more than a high-upside WR3 in fantasy leagues.

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