It took nearly two-thirds of the season, but the St. Louis Rams finally figured out how to make the most of wide receiver Tavon Austin’s skill set. The diminutive speedster broke out in the team’s Week 10 win over the Indianapolis Colts by accounting for three touchdowns – the first on a 98-yard punt return, the latter two on 57-yard and 81-yard catches respectively.
Unfortunately he had little time to build on the breakout. Austin injured his left ankle early in the Week 14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and missed the final three games.
But 2014 brings new opportunities and new expectations. Austin may never be the type of receiver that catches 100 passes per year with upward of 1,000 receiving yards. But in no way does that limit his effectiveness. Quite the contrary, actually.
In 2013, Austin had four receiving touchdowns. He recorded another on a punt return. And he also managed to score a rushing touchdown as well. Austin has the ability to impact a game in a variety of ways at any given time.
Where his presence has been most welcome, however, has been on the return game. Not since the days of Tony Horne and The Greatest Show on Turf have the Rams gotten any sustained production from their return men. And there have been a lot of them. Terrence Wilkins. Arlen Harris. (The ghost of) Dante Hall. Danny Amendola. Just to name a handful.
Given Austin’s smaller size and potential for injury, the question becomes: Will head coach Jeff Fisher allow him to field both kickoffs and punts? He was the primary return man last year, but that could change in 2014. It seems like Austin is pretty well entrenched as the punt returner. But here are some guys who might also get a look in the return game.
Cunningham parlayed a strong training camp into a meaningful role as the Rams third running back – and arguably could have been considered the backup running back as the season progressed. He filled in for Austin as kickoff returner when the former was out with injury. Cunningham will face more competition for playing time this year with the drafting of former Auburn running back Tre Mason, but could boost his stock with another strong showing in the return game.
This would seem to be a long shot for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is that Pead might not even be with the team once training camp breaks. It appears he won’t be getting any more chances at running back so he has to carve out his niche on the team somewhere. Returning kicks (or maybe just special teams in general) might be his best bet.
Way back in 2010 when Jenkins was a junior with the Florida Gators, he was their primary punt returner. When the Rams were experimenting with replacement punt returners while Amendola was out in 2012, Jenkins was one of the players to get a look. He didn’t stand out – nine returns for 46 yards – but could be called upon again in a pinch.
Veltung was one of Austin’s replacements in the return game when the latter was out. He mostly returned punts but could be serviceable as a kickoff returner as well. He’s speedy, but as a wide receiver, faces an uphill battle to make the final roster.
Recently signed after he was cut by the Chicago Bears, Spencer offers intriguing speed. The former McNeese State wide receiver ran a blazing 40-yard dash at his pro day (he wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine), with a time as low as 4.27 seconds. For now, Spencer sits on the Rams 90-man roster. But he will have to make the most of his opportunities and flash his speed in order to catch the eye of the coaching staff.