In a couple of ways, Tavon Austin's controversy reminds me of Russell Wilson's
Much like the San Francisco 49ers, the St. Louis Rams were highly active movers on draft day and drafted mostly “big name” prospects. Of the Rams’ seven selections, only two of them were originally owned by the Rams. The pick used to get Tavon Austin was originally owned by the Bills before the Rams struck a deal to move up. That deal also involved swapping 3rd round picks. The Rams traded down from #22 and acquired three picks from Atlanta (and gave up a 2015 7th rounder). The Rams traded their final two picks (both in the 6th round- one of them from Atlanta) for the Texans’ 5th rounder.
The Seahawks drafted 11 players, 4 of which I had never heard of before and 3 of which I was only faintly aware of. I recognized every player the Rams drafted. I think any fan that follows the draft decently well probably would recognize most of their picks. Drafting big names is a great way to earn draft day awards in the media but isn’t a particularly good long term indicator, as the Arizona Cardinals have proven for years. Big name players like Barrett Jones, Jesse Williams, Quinton Patton, and Ryan Swope dropped into the later rounds for a good reason, a reason that all 32 teams agreed to as evidenced by not drafting them. Jesse Williams has 1st round talent, but that does not guarantee that he’s a 5th round steal. There’s more to it than that. Just because you recognize a lot of the names drafted, don’t be fooled. Seattle’s best late round picks in the current regime were all players that made fans say “who?” on draft day.
There is a growing sentiment that Seattle’s long term adversary is not the 49ers, but the Rams. I find that idea more than a little dismissive of a massively talented 49ers team, but I get it. The Rams were tied for the NFL lead in sacks last year, they play very tough defense, and they almost went undefeated in the division last year.
But just as important, the Rams have something the 49ers and Seahawks do not have: areas for potentially significant improvement. Sam Bradford’s career passer rating is almost identical to Christian Ponder’s. The Rams offensive line has never truly solidified. They had an over-the-hill and perhaps unmotivated running back as the focal point of their offense last year. The Rams best receiver was well below the NFL median in yards per target, could never stay healthy, and departed in free agency. Yet despite all those issues, the Rams offense last season still somehow ranked 15th in Football Outsiders metrics (The Seahawks ranked 1st, amazingly. No team threw fewer passes last year than the Seahawks).
Add a couple of playmaking receivers, solidify the offensive line, upgrade the running back spot, and suddenly the Rams offense becomes a group that could surprise people. The team added Jake Long in free agency to pair with Roger Saffold. They’ll have last year’s late round steal Daryl Richardson compete with this year’s hopeful steal: Zac Stacy. Either one would likely be an upgrade over what Steven Jackson gave them last year. They drafted two of the best receivers in the draft. They also signed the physically talented tight end Jared Cook.
The media got it wrong. The NFC West “arms race” wasn’t between Seattle and San Francisco. It was between Seattle and St. Louis.
Thankfully, the Rams have invested quite a bit around a quarterback that has been below average in his first three seasons. Bradford has only thrown 4 total touchdowns in 6 starts against Seattle; throwing an interception in all six contests. He managed just six points against Seattle’s 32nd ranked defense in 2010 (Football Outsiders weighted defense), dropping what would have been a division winning, playoff clinching 6-16 contest. Bradford was out-dueled that night by Charlie Whitehurst.
The moves the Rams have made are impressive, though it reminds me of buying a lemon on the used car lot. You might think you got a deal at first, but the car repair bills quickly add up and you end up with a vehicle that is both expensive and undependable, built around a faulty core. You’d expect Bradford to improve statistically next season, but don’t expect miracles. We know what Bradford is and isn’t. He isn’t an elite quarterback, but I could see him being elevated to average with a better supporting cast.
Imagine the Rams with RG3. Most people might react to that by saying it’s unfair to expect the Rams to have been such radical forward thinkers in 2012. But in today’s NFL, you have to be a radical forward thinker to be the best. If Griffin can learn to protect his body and refine himself as a pocket passer, I suspect many people will question the Rams making that trade in a few years time. The Rams got a long list of talented players in return, but so did the Browns when they dealt the pick that turned into Julio Jones.
The Rams 2013 draft:
Round 1: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Round 1: Alec Ogletree, LB, Geogia
Round 3: T.J. McDonald, S, USC
Round 3: Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia
Round 4: Barrett Jones, G, Alabama
Round 5: Brandon McGee, CB, Miami
Round 5: Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt
My least favorite cliche during the 2013 draft: “Tavon Austin is just another Dexter McCluster.” This has been repeated by even some very intelligent football minds. I get the basis for it. They compare Austin to McCluster because of usage. I still think it’s a bullshit comparison.
Dexter McCluster ran an official 4.58 at the 2010 NFL combine. This time was considered a “head scratcher” by people that assume you must be fast if you returned kicks for touchdowns in college and made the occasional defender miss. An observer with a keen eye could have told you before that combine that McCluster would run close to a 4.60. On tape he wasn’t exploding for big runs, and he wasn’t separating from pursuers. He’d make guys miss and all that, but he had precious little room for error.
Contrast that with Austin, who ran a smooth 4.34 at his combine (including a couple of unofficial times in the 4.2s) and has Barry Sanders type moves in the open field. John Schneider believes that longer arms improve a player’s forty time in coverage. In a similar sense, I’d argue that making defenders miss without dropping many MPH is an enhancing factor for speed on offense. Barry Sanders is not the fastest player in NFL history (among those faster: Tavon Austin). What Barry Sanders can claim is that he was the NFL’s most elusive runner of all time. I think Austin’s speed and elusiveness is in the same discussion with Barry Sanders. Comparing him to Dexter McCluster, from an athleticism perspective, is ridiculous. If you are itching for a McCluster comp, set your cross-hairs on Ace Sanders instead.
Austin will play in the slot for the Rams and could move around the formation ala Percy Harvin. Austin probably won’t rush for over 300 yards in a game like he did against the Oklahoma Sooners last season, but I’m sure the Rams will experiment in various ways. I do not think Austin is some kind of specialist. I don’t think NFL teams think that either. You don’t draft Dexter McCluster type specialists in the top 10 picks, and the Rams were not the only team to consider doing so.
I think the most compelling counter argument against Tavon Austin is the one Rob made comparing him to DeSean Jackson. Both Austin and Jackson have nearly identical speed and both are excellent “moves” runners with outstanding instincts. Jackson isn’t particularly durable and might not be the biggest competitor. That’s where I see the difference. The next bone crushing hit I see Austin take will be the first. He has a great sense for avoiding contact and sensing danger over the middle. I think as long as Sam Bradford has the sense to not hang Austin up to dry, he should be fine. Press him at the line? How’d that work for Seattle against small, ultra quick receivers such as Danny Amendola and Wes Welker last season? Austin is a big time competitor too and I think that probably played a role in the Rams’ decision to also draft Stedman Bailey.
Ultimately, I’ve always viewed Austin as a top ten talent in a small body. I figured that his stature would drop him into the 2nd round from the same kind of size bias that hurt Russell Wilson last year. With Wilson you heard a lot of people saying that he’d only be a backup in the NFL, as if to suggest that height wouldn’t be a problem if he only played in short stretches of the season. I always thought that was odd. With Austin, you have people suggesting he can’t be a full time player because of his size, even though there are already full time players at his size in the NFL.
I can’t promise that Austin will be a megastar. He was more of an attraction than a foundational piece even in college. He was more flash than pure production. I could very easily see Stedman Bailey beating Austin in yardage, as Bailey did in 2012. That said, I do think it’s very likely that Austin will be the Rams version of CJ Spiller, Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson or DeSean Jackson: he may not be a rock in the offense, but he’ll get them cheap points when they desperately need them and help them win games that they wouldn’t have won otherwise.
Further, Seattle has struggled against ultra quick players in the recent past. Seattle’s secondary is not designed to counter them. Reggie Bush, CJ Spiller, Stevie Johnson, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Titus Young (who had just 383 yards last season but had 100 against us), Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, and Brandon Marshall. Those were the skill position players who gave Seattle’s defense the most trouble last season. Gore struggled in his second meeting. Peterson and Marshall dominated the entire league and Seattle was no different. The rest were ultra quick players who enjoyed enhanced success against our defense or were consistently productive week to week and were not slowed by our big defensive backfield.
If players like those are a pain for our defense to handle, imagine Austin. It wouldn’t surprise me if Austin had his two best games of the 2013 season against Seattle.
Some might argue that Austin isn’t worth the investment the Rams made. Even as someone who thinks Austin is undervalued by many, I understand that argument. However, the Rams are gunning for the top of the division, and to do so they must build a team capable of exploiting the weaknesses of the alpha franchise. The Rams already seem to have the 49ers’ number somehow. Now they just need to solve the Seahawks. Austin is a potent tool in their arsenal to that end.
Alec Ogletree wasn’t the athlete we thought he’d be when he tested at the NFL Combine, and he lost fans when deeper tape study revealed a player who shies from contact and lacks natural instincts. Ogletree has a Kam Chancellor type build but otherwise they are nothing alike. I didn’t like the value with this choice either, as Arthur Brown is at least arguably a better prospect and he went a full round later. Alec Ogletree also had an arrest for DUI during the week of the NFL Combine, which whispers Koren Robinson levels of poor judgement. I think the Rams are in for an unpleasant surprise with this pick.
TJ McDonald was a bit like the Rams’ version of our Jordan Hill pick. Both have modest measurables and on paper should only be NFL average starters, but both have a lot of polish and effort which makes them strong candidates to be NFL over-achievers. McDonald sometimes lacks in the physicality department, but he has good instincts in run support and his man-coverage skills were a bit of an eye-opener for me when I gave him a second look. He almost reminds me of a safety version of Bobby Wagner. I doubt McDonald makes a pro-bowl in his career, but I could see him being one of those good component players that slips under the national radar.
A technician at receiver who is almost indistinguishable from Robert Woods or a young Bobby Engram, Stedman Bailey was one of the bigger steals in the draft when the Rams took him in the 3rd round. Bailey is one of the draft’s best receivers at making his first cut. He runs smooth routes, has dependable hands and has a nose for the endzone after the catch. He’s sticks to his blocks well. He has the tools to continue being a very good possession receiver in the NFL. It wouldn’t shock me if he proved to be more of a core piece in the offense than his West Virginia teammate.
Someone who’s thoughts I often borrow compared John Moffitt’s blocking style to a forklift. When I watch Barrett Jones, I see that same exact trait. Jones is always pushing the defender’s pads up with his arms in pass protection, and relies on similar technique in the running game. Jones might be slightly below the NFL average as an athlete and chooses to win with technique instead. I like Moffitt more than most, and I’d consider him to be NFL average; he’s a player who narrowly avoids disaster often and who makes touchdown springing blocks with no margin for error to spare. Moffitt came from a team that’s an NFL lineman factory. Barrett Jones is the same story.
As John Schneider would say, Brandon McGee “tested well.” His results across the board were on the better side of the combine median for corners, with the exception of arm length and broad jump, and neither were bad scores. Only four corners ran a better forty time and all four went much earlier than McGee did. McGee’s ten yard split was the best among the entire corner group.
It is a bit of a challenge to watch McGee’s finesse style of play, frequent use in loose man coverages, and lack of ball hawking tendencies and not think about Kelly Jennings. The fact that McGee wears #21 and played for the Miami Hurricanes probably isn’t helping matters.
Another 5’8″ running back, Zac Stacy continues a trend among our NFC West rivals of adding short running backs. Stacy weighs just four pounds less than Chistine Michael and both were among the running back leaders on the bench press with 27 reps. Stacy has NFL average speed, but makes up for it with just about everything else. He reminds me quite a bit of “complete” college running backs like Chris Polk or Cierre Wood. Good pick.
Stacy, McGee, and Jones all profile as NFL average players. I think Bailey will end up as an above average possession receiver. McDonald is a bit of a Tim Ruskell type defender. I think he’ll help that team as long as he remains cheap. Ogletree is the big risk in a draft full of safe picks. Tavon Austin will be more of a pest than a foundational piece, though unfortunately I think that’s enough for the Rams to present a problem in future head to head matches.
If you just want starters and reps, I’d probably nominate the Rams as having the best draft in the NFC West, based on what I can determine at this stage. All seven picks are pretty likely to make the Rams’ roster and I could see several of them starting in 2013.
That said, other than Austin at the top, very little about this draft worries me. The Rams’ draft is tilted towards safe picks and not upside selections, and the Rams aren’t going to catch the Seahawks by bunting the runner to 3rd base. Drafting for safer, less dynamic players was a bit of a trend for the Rams last year too, and it shouldn’t be surprising that their best pick was the riskiest one they made (a pick I really liked for the Rams, as I thought Jenkins was clearly the draft’s best corner and character concerns are often blown out of proportion during draft season). If the Rams want to catch Seattle, they must strive for more than a roster that settles for average starters at most positions.