In the 72nd minute of USA soccer’s 2-2 draw with Portugal last night, midfielder Alejandro Bedoya was subbed off and replaced by youngster DeAndre Yedlin on the wing. The US had leveled the score at 1-1 just 10 minutes prior, but the speed and athleticism being flashed by the Portuguese attack demanded some reinforcements be brought in.
Enter Yedlin, the 20-year-old left back by trade, who was tasked with using his great speed to neutralize the wings. Despite his very limited experience with the team, his physical gifts made him very effective in his very specific role with the team. Yedlin was part of the buildup that led to the USA’s equalizing goal and did well in making up ground and tracking back defensively.
Yedlin’s performance last night got me thinking about the role of wide receiver Tavon Austin as it develops in the Rams’ offense. As he wraps up OTAs and enters his second year with the team, all indications are that he will continue to be used in a variety of ways going forward. This stems from his flashes of big play ability in his rookie season where he could be found lining up in the slot, coming out of the backfield, and making bold decisions returning punts.
Despite a relatively miniscule 5’8 frame, Austin is a cannonball forged of speed and agility, much of which led to his success at West Virginia and his subsequent selection at eighth overall in the 2013 draft. However, that size – in a game as brutal on the body as football – is the reason why he will never be (and shouldn’t have to be) a No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
Don’t get me wrong. I hope to see much more contribution to the offense in 2014 and beyond out of Austin. I think he can develop into a truly unique playmaker. It’s just that I see him doing it in a role similar to the one he filled in 2013. His explosion and evasiveness may simply prove more effective that way, and I’ll tell you why.
Last week, I discussed the expectations for Austin’s corps mate Brian Quick. Much of the theme of that post was that the style of offense the Rams play inhibits the production of receivers from a numerical standpoint. It doesn’t mean they’re performing poorly necessarily, it’s just that an upswing in run calls is obviously going to put a cap on the amount of receptions to go around.
With that said, I don’t expect Austin’s involvement in the down-to-down offense to increase dramatically in 2014. It’s very early, but the coaches have indicated that they’ll attempt to use Austin in similar ways in the upcoming season. From Jim Thomas’ piece in the St. Louis Post Dispatch yesterday, on where we’ll see Austin lining up this season:
“Moving him around to a lot of different spots,” Schottenheimer said. “You’ll see us hand him the ball, do some different things. He’s playing so much faster just because he knows what we’re doing. He has the system down cold.”
The last part of the quote sets the expectations for me. I don’t think we’ll see Austin on the field any more than we did in his rookie season (He featured in just over 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps). I’m fine with that. He showed in 2013 that he can be a bit prone to injury. However, if he is indeed learning to see the game better, it’s very possible that he’ll simply do more with the limited opportunities he has. We all remember his rookie year for the big plays. The aforementioned punt return against the Colts to go along with touchdowns of 57 and 81 yards in the same game. The 65-yard reverse that went for a touchdown against the Bears. His two-touchdown performance early in the season against the Falcons. Ultimately, his rookie year will be remembered for only a handful of plays. The case I’m making is that there’s nothing wrong with that.
If Austin’s level of comfort with the offense can take him from five game-changing plays in a season to eight or 10, then that is something to be excited about. Given his frame and the limited passing potential this offense looks poised to embrace, Austin may never put up numbers like Detroit’s Calvin Johnson or Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, who are true No. 1 receivers by every modern sense of the word. But that’s OK. The Rams drafted Austin to be a playmaker, not to shoulder the entire load of moving the team down the field.
In a league where parity is at an all-time high and victory is often determined by one or two big swings in the action, Austin’s speed ability to break games open will be a difference maker. It just may take some patience until we see him doing it more consistently.