St. Louis Rams 2013 NFL Draft: A Case Against Tavon Austin

Feb 24, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers wide receiver Tavon Austin warms up before running the 40 yard dash during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers wide receiver Tavon Austin warms up before running the 40 yard dash during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

Yes, despite the infatuation with the opening of free agency there is still going to be an NFL Draft this year. Naturally, the mock drafts that have been circulating since mid-December will now be drastically altered, compensating for the roster moves made by each organization. Miami will likely not be looking to fill a void at wide receiver, Pittsburgh will now look to put some pieces around Roethlisberger, and Baltimore will be looking to revamp their entire “Back-8” in the defense. For St. Louis, free agency as likely narrowed their “options” in the first round, with seemingly no need to look for a tackle (assuming Jake Long signs) or a tight end. The release of Danny Amendola and Quintin Mikell suggests that the St. Louis Rams will be looking towards the draft to fill those holes, which takes us to into our debate…

Most post-free agency mocks have the St. Louis Rams targeting a wide receiver with the 16th overall pick in the draft. The analysts seems to be split, with roughly half having Cordarrelle Patterson in that slot, and the other half putting the golden horns on Tavon Austin. Coincidentally, the two have been battling for the top of the wide receiver board since the Combine, and after an amazing showing at West Virginia’s Pro Day, many have Tavon Austin moved to the tippy top of the “best available” list at the skill positions.

No one would be upset with a player like Austin joining the squad, especially give the potential contributions on both special teams and within the offense. However, fans and analysts alike seem to be smitten with his explosiveness in college to the point where they are blind to the reality of one undeniable weakness, one that cannot be improved with coaching, practice, or experience; his size. Tavon Austin measured in at an astounding 5’8 tall, 174 lbs. at the Combine, making him one of the smallest overall players at the Combine, trumped only by the occasional running back and defensive back. And, while we have seen many “shorter” player succeed in the NFL, we have never seen anyone with that combination of “smallness” perform at the next level. Here is some history to show just that…

There have only been six players in the history of the NFL that played at 5’8 (or shorter) and weighed under 180 lbs. that gained over 2,000 receiving yards throughout their entire career. The most “dominate” of those players was Tim Dwight, who was 5’8, 180 lbs., and played from 1998 until 2007. Dwight started a mere 32 games in the NFL, and ended his career with 194 receptions, 2964 yards, and 19 touchdowns.

In the return game, players like Dante Hall and Allen Rossum have had success, both racking up 10,000+ return yards with 5 or more kickoff return touchdowns in their careers. However, their impact on the actual offense was negligible, with Hall pulling in a minuscule 162 receptions and 1,747 yards in his nine seasons in the league.

Testing the bounds of this correlation between height and performance, moving the height-o-meter up a full inch to 5’9 does not shed light on much more success in the league. The increased range does generate some names, like Steve Smith (Carolina), Gary Clark, Mark Clayton, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, and Hall-of-Famer, Tim McDonald. However, those addition inclusions share a common thread that has likely attributed to their success in the league; weight. The modern players, like Welker, Smith, and Branch, all weigh at least 185 lbs., and that bulk on their small frame shows when watching them play on the field. “Chippiness” and “toughness” have been labels thrown on both Smith and Welker since they emerged as perennial threats in the NFL. Smith plays on the outside, but Welker, much like Austin would in the NFL, plays primarily in the slot. Slot players are frequently ask to run across the face of linebackers, or to curl and slant in the zone between the deep safety and the second level of the defense, putting that player in a position to take multiple, devastating hits throughout the season. Welker has maintained his health in New England, but done so, primarily, out of the a spread offense and with an additional 15 lbs. of bulk to absorb the hits, playing consistently at 190 lbs. or more throughout his career. Austin would have neither of those luxuries in St. Louis…

Naturally, that points to being “undersized” in the weight department as the potential deterrent for success in the NFL, which would make sense given the increasingly violent nature of the game. We see receiver after receiver in the NFL leave with injury after a big hit, just ask Mohamed Massaquoi in Cleveland, who is constantly injured playing in the rugged AFC North despite his 6’0, 210 lbs. frame. So, looking through history, has anyone had success with such a petite frame? A wide receiver weighing under 175 lbs. has surpassed 800 receiving yards in a season only 10 times in the “modern” age of football, which we are going to subjectively mark as beginning in the 2000-2001 season.  Of those 10 times, Marvin Harrison accounted for seven (each seasons from 2000 to 2008), with the other three belonging to Steve Breaston, Anthony Armstrong, and Dennis Northcutt. And, while those receivers were successful playing at such a light weight, they each have something that Austin does not… each is, at least, 5’11 tall.

There are always exceptions to the rules in the NFL, with players like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson breaking the mold on “undersized” quarterbacks. However, slot receivers and running backs take a beating in this league unlike any other position in the NFL. Tavon Austin has the credential of a clean injury history, but will not be playing against Big 12-caliber talent at the next level. The expectations that he could be used as a utility back and in the return game, on top of lining up in the slot, only increases the likelihood that Austin could be injured. The St. Louis Rams have not had luck keeping undersized players healthy; think Donnie Avery or Danny Amendola. With players like Cordarrelle Patterson likely available in the first, and multiple projected slot receivers likely to be available in the mid- and latter rounds of the draft, the St. Louis Rams would be smart to invest in someone with a little more meat on their bones. For fans that are craving a sub-6’0, 4.3 40-time guy that can be used as a utility player in the offense… there is already one on the roster; Chris Givens. Grab a player with a true, outside wide receiver build to pair with Brian Quick and let the offense get creative moving Givens and the newly-acquired Jared Cook around in the formation.