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Tavon Austin is a better fantasy WR than you think

Every once in awhile there comes time when a man has to make a lonely journey up a mountain to find truth. Once he's had that awakening, there's nothing left to do but stand atop that mountain and spread that epiphany to the masses. This is one of those times.

(Also I promised Matt Franciscovich that I'd write this piece if he dropped a Christine Michael hype piece. He did. So here I am.)

Read me now and believe me later. Tavon Austin is going to have a breakout season in 2016.

Now before you grab a bullhorn and soapbox and head to your local street corner to preach this new gospel, let's inject a dose of reality. Don't start moving Austin among the ranks of potential WR1s. He's not going to start challenging the Julio Joneses of the world for fantasy supremacy. I know that you all knew that, but sometimes it's best to state the obvious just to get it out of the way.

But Tavon Austin as a legit WR2 this year? It's not crazy. After all, he was a better fantasy player than you remember. In 2015, Austin set career highs in nearly every offensive category and finished the year as a top 25 fantasy wideout on par with the much more ballyhooed Amari Cooper and better than Mike Evans and Randall Cobb.

Normally it's worth being concerned about a player who puts together his best work three seasons in. Can he do it again? Is the dreaded R-word (regression) coming? But in this case there are a number of reasons to believe that Austin is still trending upward.

Rams gonna Ram

Let's be honest, the next person who can give me a coherent explanation of the Rams offensive strategy from the past three years will be the first. Part of it stemmed from the team lacking significant playmakers. In 2013 (Austin's rookie season), the team leader in scrimmage yards was ... Zac Stacy with 1,114 yards. That's not exactly something that's going to keep opposing defensive coordinators up late at night.

The other part has to do with offensive coordinators discussing Austin's importance to the offense while still funnelling opportunities through a questionable list of players -- we're looking at you, Brian Schottenheimer. Name another team where an "important" player owns just a nine percent share of targets and rush attempts. Yet I present to you the 2014 Rams.

That started to change last season. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti seemed to try getting the ball to Austin more. In the team's first 12 games, Austin saw an average of five targets and six total touches per game. That might not sound like much but it was an improvement over the four targets and five touches that had been Austin's career average heading into 2015.

Things really picked up when Rob Boras took over the offensive coordinator job before Week 14. From that point on, Austin's average targets ticked up to six per game while his total touches hit nearly eight per game.

Yes I'm aware that neither one of those numbers are eye-popping, but it speaks to the Rams figuring out ways to get the ball into the hands of a guy that is universally thought of inside the building as a playmaker. Why it took three different offensive coordinators before they finally formulated a plan is a mystery to us all. But let's forget about the journey and enjoy the destination.

Space invader

Austin might be a smaller receiver built in the mold of Antonio Brown, but as Brian Baldinger astutely points out in the video at the top of this article ... Tavon Austin is no Antonio Brown. All that means is that you're not likely to see Austin running a ton of downfield routes in traffic. That'll make it tough for him to reach the 100-catch threshold, but none of us really expected that anyway even if the sentiment is encouraging.

But one thing you can expect plenty of from Austin and the Rams this season is that there should be plenty of bubble screens in the offing. Last season, 43 percent of Austin's targets were at or behind the line of scrimmage. For some of the fans watching from the stands at the LA Coliseum this season, it might create some scary flashbacks to Lane Kiffin patrolling the sidelines during USC games ... but these screens are going to actually be #good.

The idea should be to get Austin the ball in space and allow him to use his quickness and athleticism to beat the defense. It should help a player who won't list power among his strengths. It will also mitigate the impact of an offense line that was a less than great run unit last season.

Speaking of running the football, this is where you can find hidden production from Austin. Last year he picked up 52 rushing attempts -- third-most on the team -- equalling the number of receptions he had. Austin turned those 52 rushing attempts into 434 yards, which works out to a solid 8.3 yards per carry average (which also happens to be his career YPC number). As I watched his 2015 game tape, I couldn't help but notice how the Rams used Austin's speed and elusiveness to run misdirection. My notes contain the words "So. Many. End. Arounds." In fact, it was an end around that accounted for all of Austin's stats in the Rams' preseason game last weekend. Don't look at it as a three-yard run. Look at it as a sign that the team is committed to getting him the football.

QB or not QB

Generally, the amount of risk that is attached to a fantasy receiver has a lot to do with an offense's passing volume and the play of the quarterback. Those things are certainly potential obstacles to Austin's success (Matt Harmon got into this in his recent analysis of Todd Gurley), but if Jeff Fisher and Rob Boras are serious about using Austin as one of their playmakers, then his opportunity might not be quite as limited by game scripts as it's been in the past.

Besides, who else in this offense is going to start gobbling up a large target share? Kenny Britt? Brian Quick? Pharoh "Poor Man's Tavon Austin" Cooper? Stop me when I hit someone who excites you. The point is that the Rams will need to find another consistent skill positon option besides Todd Gurley if they hope to improve on 2015's last place offensive finish. Involving Austin heavily in a short passing game and as a runner will go a long way toward shortening games and putting the onus on a defense that is perfectly capable of keeping the team close on a weekly basis.

It should also help whoever is under center. If you believe the reports, Jared Goff isn't close to being ready to start an NFL game and Case Keenum is, well ... Case Keenum. Anything Boras can do to avoid putting the game in his quarterback's hands will be a good thing.

Final verdict

Right now, Austin is being supremely undervalued. On NFL.com, his current ADP is as the WR43 behind Markus Wheaton -- who could very well lose the Steelers No. 2 receiver competition. It's even worse at FantasyPros.com where Austin is WR47 behind Josh Gordon(!!!). The good news is that he'll be available late enough that drafting him will be akin to stealing. Especially if he the returns WR2 value that is imminently possible this year.

In the meantime, can someone help me down off this mountain? I'm getting a little lightheaded from all the shouting.

Why wait? CLICK HERE to get your 2016 NFL Fantasy season started.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com and a man just trying to get up the fantasy football foothills. Follow him on Twitter @MarcasG.

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