Scout's Notebook  

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Scout's Notebook: Is Tavon Austin really a No. 1 receiver?

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» What's going on with Aaron Rodgers and the underwhelming Packers offense?

» Why Minnesota's offense might be more potent without Adrian Peterson.

» Is Tavon Austin worth the big-money deal he signed this offseason?

But first, a look at Tavon Austin's potential to be a WR1 ...

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THE REBUTTAL: Is Tavon Austin really a No. 1 receiver?

That's the question that immediately came to mind when I heard the reports of the four-year, $42 million extension that Austin signed with the Los Angeles Rams near the end of training camp. Why in the world would the Rams commit big bucks to a receiver who averaged 41 catches and 378 yards per season over his first three NFL campaigns? I couldn't figure out how the Rams planned to get a return on their investment, seeing how they've failed to get the ball to the ultra-explosive -- but diminutive -- playmaker since he arrived as No. 8 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.

That's why I had to make a trip to the Coliseum to get a first-hand look at how the Rams would showcase their most dynamic weapon on the perimeter. Most importantly, I wanted to talk to a few folks to see if I could get the scoop on why Austin is such an essential piece of this organization's offensive puzzle for this season and beyond.

Before I dig into this subject, I think it's important for me to reveal how I initially viewed Austin as a draft prospect. The 5-foot-8, 176-pound playmaker was an electric multipurpose weapon at West Virginia. Austin flashed impressive stop-start quickness, burst and running skills with the ball in his hands. Although he was exposed to a limited route tree as a slot receiver in the Mountaineers' spread offense, it was easy to see his potential as a catch-and-run specialist from the slot. In addition, I thought his potential as a gadget player (direct-snap runs, reverses, bubble screens and fly sweeps) could make him a nice complementary playmaker on a team with an established No. 1 receiver on the field.

Despite my intrigue with his talent and potential, I did have some reservations about taking Austin at the top of the draft, due to his small stature and undefined game. I worried about investing a top pick in a player viewed as a specialty playmaker, and I openly questioned whether Austin could ever live up to the lofty expectations that accompany a top-10 grade. WR1s in this league are expected to be consistent 1,000-yard players, or at least guys who deliver game-changing plays (touchdowns, receptions of 25-plus yards and/or punt returns) every week. Inherently, Austin headlined a pre-draft story I penned on the most overrated prospects in the Class of 2013.

Looking at his pro performance thus far, I believe it is fair to say the Austin hasn't lived up to the standard that most expect from a receiver taken eighth overall. He has failed to produce a 1,000-yard season to date and has only scored 19 total touchdowns (nine receptions, seven rushes and three punt returns) in 46 career games. Sure, he is coming off a season where he produced as a multipurpose playmaker, converting 104 offensive touches (52 receptions, 52 rushing attempts) into 907 scrimmage yards, but those numbers still aren't quite WR1 stats.

When I asked Austin about his role, he dismissed the notion that he is a classic No. 1 receiver.

"I'm an 'ATH' [athlete]," Austin told me. "I might not have the best numbers, but by the end of the each game, I will have some kind of impact."

I thought that answer was insightful because he used the "ATH" term that's often voiced by recruiting analysts when evaluating top high school prospects. Analysts normally tag two-way players or multi-position playmakers as athletes on those lists. It is viewed as a term of endearment in some circles because it speaks volumes about the prospect's combination of speed, athleticism and playmaking ability. Thus, it makes sense for Austin to see himself in that light, based on his history as a high school player (two-time Maryland State Player of Year as a running back/slot receiver/returner at Dunbar High School in Baltimore) and collegian.

When Austin dropped that nugget on me, it led me to pause and rethink how I should view him, based on his skills and the way that he should be deployed. The fourth-year pro is unquestionably an electric playmaker capable of putting the ball in the paint when he gets chances on the perimeter as a runner/receiver. As a natural punt returner with explosive speed, quickness and wiggle, Austin excels at making defenders miss. His ability to create explosive plays with the ball in his hands makes him a dangerous guy to defend.

That brings me back to why the Rams paid big money to keep Austin in the fold for the foreseeable future. He is unquestionably the team's second-best offensive weapon behind Todd Gurley. In addition, he is the only receiver on the roster with the speed and explosiveness to threaten opponents on the outside and prompt defensive coordinators to alter their game plans. Thus, the team was compelled to reward him for his impact potential, despite his marginal production.

And actually, looking back at Austin's contract numbers (four years, $42 million), the Rams are essentially paying him like a top-tier WR2, according to league standards. His contract falls in line with the deals inked by Doug Baldwin (four years, $46 million), Allen Hurns (four years, $40.6 million) and Emmanuel Sanders (three years, $33 million). Although their roles on their respective teams vary, those guys are essentially viewed as low-level WR1s or top-notch WR2s around the league. Considering Austin's value to the Rams, the contract is sensible, based on how he impacts the offense as a primary playmaker.

When I spoke to a couple of Rams scouts about Austin and why it was important to retain him, they repeatedly told me that he is a "playmaker" and he has the potential deliver the "splash plays" the team needs in the passing game. While they acknowledged that they might've overpaid him a bit, the Rams wanted to send a clear message that they want to retain "their guys" when they come up as free agents.

Remember, the Rams dismissed a few long-term veterans (Chris Long and James Laurinaitis) and failed to re-sign a couple of core players, including Janoris Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, who had been key contributors. This led several vets to wonder if the team would commit big money to "homegrown" guys. Deals like Austin's help maintain chemistry and continuity in the locker room.

On the field, the Rams are still attempting to come up with a plan for Austin. When I spoke to members of the coaching staff in the offseason, I was told that he could be used as a Julian Edelman-type playmaker -- that he could catch 80 to 100 balls on a variety of option routes, short crossers and "flash" screens that take advantage of his skills as an electric "ATH" on the perimeter. Although it hasn't come to fruition to this point, Austin could eventually justify his big payday as the Rams' No. 1 option in the passing game, despite the critics taking exception to his substandard production as a WR1.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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