At 5-foot-8, Tavon Austin casts a relatively small shadow, but it’s one that will loom over Rams practice this week as the team enters the final phase of its offseason work.
Austin won’t be on the field. The Rams’ top returning receiver had wrist surgery this month and, presumably, will be ready to return when training camp opens in late July. But these are complicated times for Austin and the Rams’ receivers, and no void goes unfilled in the NFL.
The Rams will hold 10 full-team practices at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks over the next three weeks, with the initial one scheduled for Monday afternoon. Will the Rams figure out how much they need Austin? Or will they see a path toward a future without him?
New coach Sean McVay and General Manager Les Snead have revamped the Rams’ group of receivers. Kenny Britt and Brian Quick departed via free agency. The Rams signed Robert Woods and used two of their first four draft picks on receivers Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds.
Kupp, a third-round pick, was the star of this month’s Rams rookie mini-camp, while Reynolds displayed good length, hands and speed. It’s reasonable to think both receivers could play roles in 2017.
“I think the idea is that we’re expecting some of these guys to contribute,” McVay said, “and they certainly have to earn it and we know that we’re always looking to create competition at all spots. Whoever we think is the best player to give us the best chance to have success, that’s who is going to play.”
It’s reasonable to look down the line and see Woods as a consistent, good-hands, good-blocking receiver, Reynolds as the deep threat and Kupp as the tough inside receiver. So, what about Austin?
Austin, the Rams’ No. 8 overall draft pick in 2013, signed a four-year, $42-million contract extension before last season. In four seasons, though, Austin has never topped 58 receptions or 509 yards.
It’s time for Austin to show something, particularly to a new coach who won’t be shy about making changes. It’s noteworthy that after the 2017 season, Austin can be traded for a salary-cap hit of only $1 million. On the other hand, Austin deserves a chance to show his skills in a better-designed offense.
Former coach Jeff Fisher and his lengthy list of offensive coordinators seemed to prefer Austin as something of a “gadget” player. They used him on short passes and reverses and even put him in the backfield. The idea seemed to be, let Austin use his great speed to turn small plays into big plays.
McVay has a different idea. The Rams now are more likely to line up Austin on the outside and use him as more of a deep threat, similar to the way McVay used DeSean Jackson in Washington and the way new Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur used Taylor Gabriel in Atlanta.
It’s worth a shot. There are questions about whether Austin has the size, and even the skill set, to thrive in an expanded role, but the Rams need to find out.
“He’s got great hands,” LaFleur said. “When we judge receivers, it’s more about their ability to separate. The size is not as big of a concern. … (Gabriel) could get open and he was electric with the ball in his hands. So hopefully we can get Tavon going the same way.”
That’s down the line, though. Austin won’t participate in these offseason practices, which will open the door for Kupp, Reynolds and second-year receiver Pharoh Cooper to make an impact.
Kupp already has become something of a folk hero. He put up dynamic statistics in college, albeit at Eastern Washington, mostly against smaller-school competition.
The natural question, one Kupp has heard for years, is whether he can create separation and effectively win battles for balls, against NFL defensive backs. Kupp will get his first, internal test this week in scrimmages against the Rams’ defense.
“If you’re trying to prove something, you’ve got a weight on your chest,” Kupp said. “There’s no room for error. I’m just trying to come out and be who I am. I’m just going to play football. I know I’m a great player. So I’m going to come out and just let that show. That should be enough.”
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