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Tavon Austin, Marquise Goodwin revive NFL tweener questions

INDIANAPOLIS -- The two guys, on paper, didn't have a heck of a lot in common.

But when West Virginia's Tavon Austin and Texas' Marquise Goodwin ran their show-stopping 40s within minutes of each other on Sunday -- the former clocking in at 4.34 seconds, officially, and the latter blazing a 4.27 -- the Big 12 products were lumped together in a category that's given NFL people plenty of trouble in the age of the college spread offense.

Call it the "What exactly do we do with these guys?" group.

"You're still grading guys off of football-playing skills," one AFC executive said. "But that kind of speed is a trait you think you can find to use somewhere on the field. You start to think about matchups and mismatches. But can he catch? Can he separate? Can he run a route? That still matters. It can't be a go route every play."

In recruiting at the college level, there's long been an "athlete" designation, used to categorize players without positions who jump off the tape but whose usefulness is unclear.

With coaches like Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer leading the way, the answer, on that level, has been to use these guys every which way within the context of the spread. This works well within those offenses, but pro teams are still looking to answer the questions these players presented coming out of high school.

Meyer's Florida teams produced perhaps the most shining examples of such "tweeners." Percy Harvin, who played as a tailback/receiver hybrid with the Gators, is one. Aaron Hernandez, who had a "TE" next to his name on the roster but played as a slot receiver just as much as he did at tight end, is another.

Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier conceded Sunday that the team faced this conundrum before drafting Harvin in the first round in 2009. At the end of the day, the raw skills just couldn't be ignored.

"He had those special qualities: his speed, his acceleration -- it was obvious, it jumped off the tape," Frazier said. "You knew he was gonna be a special player. It was a matter of finding a way to utilize his gifts, and we found a way there in Minnesota to do that. But he had those qualities."

Which is to say, rather than forcing Harvin into one of the boxes the NFL creates for each position, the Vikings got creative the same way Meyer did, finding the best ways to use a unique talent. Indeed, Harvin has 107 career carries in addition to 280 catches over his 54 games as a pro. Ditto for the New England Patriots and Hernandez, who has played just about every skill position besides quarterback during his three years in Foxborough.

That brings us back to Austin and Goodwin.

Austin, who posted back-to-back 100-catch seasons in Morgantown, also had 72 carries in his final year there, garnering a reputation as one of college football's most explosive stick-of-dynamite weapons and becoming one of the most recognizable names going into this year's draft. Goodwin, on the other hand, never caught more than 33 passes in any season as a Longhorn. The occasional eye-popping play brought him notoriety, but a lack of overall production kept him from being a flat-out star.

What do scouts see? One who works the Big 12 told me Sunday he feels that, though Austin's short-area quickness and instincts make him a better prospect, the biggest difference between the two might be that the coaches at West Virginia found a way to capitalize on Austin's rare ability while the coaches at Texas simply couldn't do the same with Goodwin.

That goes back, of course, to the problem with these types of guys for NFL evaluators. The desire to add that kind of speed to your offense must be tempered by the need to know exactly how to exploit it best.

"You need a plan, and you have to know going in," the Big 12 scout said. "Some guys, you can say, 'This one's an X' or 'This one's a Y' or 'This one's a slot and we're gonna use him in the return game.' You can categorize most guys as possession or speed receivers, because they have the dimensions, the height, weight and speed in a range. With these guys, you don't meet those guidelines, so you have to do extra. Otherwise, you're potentially gonna waste a pick.

"Texas didn't have a plan with Goodwin. And that could happen again in the NFL, because you can't just treat him like any receiver."

As "players without borders," one issue both Goodwin and Austin have that Harvin and Hernandez didn't is a size deficiency. Both are less than 6 feet tall, with the 5-8 7/8 Goodwin tipping the scales at just 183 pounds and the 5-8 1/2 Austin weighing 174. For receivers, that's a problem; teams wonder if their catch radius and inability to get off press coverage will make it impossible to play them outside. They also wonder whether that lack of bulk will get them killed by middle-of-the-field hits when working as slot receivers.

Still, when you run like these two can, teams will be more willing to inherit some of that risk, buoyed by visions of 80-yard touchdowns and game-changing moments.

Frazier's sense on Sunday was that after Goodwin and Austin ran, more than a few NFL guys went scrambling back to the tape to verify those ideas. In the same way that their respective roles in college make it a challenge to project their futures as pros, that special quality they possess forces evaluators to reassess the way they'd normally view a prospect.

"Most teams have a size chart by position," Frazier said. "There's a certain length they want at quarterback, height and weight; a certain height and weight they want at wide receiver or defensive tackle; speed-wise, as well. When you find a guy that might not fit your criteria height, weight, speed-wise, from that standpoint, but he has that special ingredient, you kinda throw that chart out the window and say, 'This guy has something no one else does, a unique quality.'

"And you find a way to fit him into your categories."

That is precisely the task at hand for NFL clubs now, with these two guys generating so much buzz over the weekend in Indianapolis. And not until two months from now will we have the real answer on how pro clubs see all of that playing out.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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