by Matt Waldman
Evaluating players is a long process. It doesn’t end when an analyst watches a few games of a prospect. I want you to keep this in mind as you read this take or any take that I provide of a player before his college career has ended. My methodology of evaluation is as detailed as any, and I often find that the third, fourth, or fifth game I’ve watched of a player only validates what I saw in the first performance. Even so, there are times that my fundamental opinion of a player will change with additional viewings of games.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall comes to mind. I had initial concerns about his acceleration that eventually diminished after additional viewings of his performances. The more I watched him, the more I liked him. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the more I watched quarterback Matt Leinart, the less confident I felt that he had the on-field makeup to become anything more than system player with fringe starter potential.
I share this because West Virginia receiver and return specialist Tavon Austin is one of those players where after my initial studies I have more questions than answers. Several draft analysts list Austin as one of the five best receiver prospects of the 2013 NFL Draft class -– including NFL Draft Scout and my buddy Josh Norris over at Rotoworld. I agree that the 5-foot-9, 176-pound slot receiver and kick return specialist from West Virginia is among the most productive performers at his position in college football, but what I have seen of Austin continues to raise one question: is there a slot receiver in pro football with the kind of marquee game that in hindsight would have deserved a first-day pick in April?
There were several players I thought of immediately: Victor Cruz, Percy Harvin, Randall Cobb, Steve Smith, and Wes Welker. However. the only two players of the group that share Austin’s size limitations are Smith and Welker. Not only is the list of "top-tier prospects" laden with a healthy dose of hindsight, but it’s debatable that Smith was ever strictly a slot receiver. This raises some points that apply to a player with Austin’s size and role within West Virginia offense. Points that may also become a more common issue as college and pro teams embrace these mighty-mites in the future.
I think there are two different types of small receivers playing in the NFL. The first is the dynamic style of player that can deliver effective performances from either the slot or the perimeter. I’m defining "small" as under 5-foot-10. This means Harvin, Cobb, and Cruz don’t apply to this analysis and only Smith fits the bill as a dynamic small receiver -– and he was a third-round pick from Utah who mostly returned kicks as a rookie. Smith was considered a surprise star at the receiver position. Austin will have to demonstrate the leaping ability, physical skill in tight coverage, and the long speed to warrant the first-round selection that Smith deserved in hindsight.
The other style of small receiver fits how the NFL defines the physical and technical characteristics of a slot player in the most classical sense. This includes the obvious names: Lance Moore, Danny Amendola, Andrew Hawkins, Davone Bess, and Welker. While many of these players can get deep as perimeter players, it’s not their strong suit. They are not going to out-muscle or out-leap larger defenders or consistently defeat press coverage like Smith.
Lots of interesting comments by Matt in this article.Austin is fast enough to play in the NFL: the question is whether he truly has enough speed to become a difference-maker on the perimeter. His quickness when changing directions and his burst from a standstill are what makes him an excellent runner, return specialist, and short-range receiving option.
Austin has shown that he is capable of taking the ball the distance behind good blocking. I have seen him makes these plays after short passes and kick returns. He also has enough speed to get behind a safety or cornerback with a double move.
However, the only deep routes where I’ve seen him blow by a defender were missed assignments or mismatches against linebackers or safeties. I am still searching for plays where Austin has beaten a defender locked onto him in coverage on a straight-forward vertical route. Further, I haven’t seen Austin outrun a cornerback with a true angle on him in the open field. Each potential opportunity I have seen ends with Austin trying to spin away or undercut the defender because he couldn’t outrun the opponent’s angle.