The Tavon Austin Hype: St. Louis Rams’ Modern Day Atlas

Apr 26, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams first round draft pick Tavon Austin speaks with the media at ContinuityX Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 26, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams first round draft pick Tavon Austin speaks with the media at ContinuityX Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

When the St. Louis Rams jumped up to draft Tavon Austin with the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the move was uniformly considering a glorious success for the Rams’ organization. Austin was, by a large margin, the first skill position player taken off of the board, joining a dominate class of receivers taken in the Top 10 over the past half decade, including A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Michael Crabtree, and Calvin Johnson.

However, not all of the picks have panned out, for one reason or the other. A recent example, Justin Blackmon, the 5th pick in the the 2012 NFL Draft, was just suspended for the opening four games of the 2013 regular season for violating something in the NFL substance abuse policy.

Stretch your mind a few years back, and you remember an Al Davis classic, taking Darrius Heyward-Bey with the Oakland Raiders 7th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, while players like Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, and Jeremy Maclin were all waiting to hear their names called…

Back in 2007, the Miami Dolphins took a flyer on Ted Ginn Jr., selecting him 9th overall. In six seasons, Ginn has been nothing more than an average returner, and a decent No. 3 wide receiver.

In 2005, there was a historically bad receiver class, with three players being taking in the Top 10: Braylon Edwards (3rd, Cleveland Browns), Troy Williamson (7th, Minnesota Vikings), and Mike Williams (10th, Detroit Lions). Edwards was the lone receiver with a “peaking moment” in the NFL, pulling in 80 catches for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns during the 2007 season. However, after being run out of town by LeBron James following an altercation at a night club, Edwards has simply bounced from team to team without much, if any, contribution. As for the others… Williamson’s last snap in the NFL was 2009, Williams’ was in 2011.

This is not necessarily meant to be a cautionary tale for Tavon Austin though. In most cases, you can easily point to one thing or the other, retrospectively divulging why that particular pick did not “work out.” With Blackmon, a DUI in both 2010 and 2012 might have pointed to potential problems with staying “clean” in at the next level. With Heyward-Bey, it was obvious that he was selected merely on the basis of this Combine numbers, having posted only 2,089 yards and 13 touchdowns in a three-year college career.

The real issue for Tavon Austin will not be keeping his head in the game, but, rather, the pressure on him to immediately produce in the NFL at an elite level. Multiple sports media institutions have marked Austin as the “favorite” for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, with some suggesting that he should put up numbers trumping the likes of Danny Amendola in New England, or comparable to those expected out of Wes Welker in Denver. Tavon is the also widely touted as the lead-runner on the St. Louis Rams in the fantasy football realm, with most experts citing Austin as the only Ram that will make a significant impact on your 2013 roster.

However, the most ominous pressure might be that of his worth to the success of the actual team, not just in terms of individual  production, but with the team’s record at the end of the season. Despite the  unanimous expectation that Austin will be used as a utility player, primarily in the slot,  the young star is, fairly or unfairly, being held in the light of a “franchise changing” talent. The media has hyped Austin to be the answer to the St. Louis Rams receiver drought of the last half decade. Suddenly, the St. Louis Rams’ offense  is being tagged as “dynamic,” “lethal,” and a “matchup nightmare!” But, what if it isn’t…

Tavon Austin is a top-tier talent and, more importantly, an intelligent young adult that appears to have his mind, and his priorities,  in the right spot. However, what happens if the Rams’ finish the season, after playing the 3rd hardest 2013 schedule, and they are looking at a 9-7 record, or worse, something below .500?

What if the offense is still middle-of-the-pack? Will anyone outside of St. Louis realize that the skill players are merely a cluster of rookies and sophomores, with Austin Pettis being the elder statesman in the corps? Doubtful…

On a lighter note, what if Austin puts up only a handful of touchdowns, and 600-700 receiving yards? Will that be viewed as a failure? Most likely… even though players like Michael Crabtree (625 yards, 2 touchdowns), Calvin Johnson (756 yards, 4 touchdowns), Larry Fitzgerald (780 yards, 8 touchdowns), Torry Holt (788 yards, 6 touchdowns), and Roddy White (446 yards, 3 touchdowns) were all average in their rookie debuts in the NFL.

The point of it all is that Tavon Austin has a lot of pressure on his shoulders right now, more than any receiver has had in recent memory. If you have watched any of the press conferences with Jeff Fisher, every other question is about Austin: his route running, what unit he worked with on the field during minicamp, and what he ate for breakfast that morning. Austin will be expected to come in and dominate the NFL, all while leading the way for the Rams to be ” in the playoff hunt” at the end of season.

My hope is that that Tavon can handle the massive weight that has been placed on his shoulders, and that his teammates will be there to help him manage some of that load as the wear and tear of a long NFL season begins to set in. Austin could be the shining light we have been waiting for in St. Louis… but, lets not snuff it out before he has time to fully ignite as a player.