ST. LOUIS — Speed might be the most valuable asset at the wide receiver position, and few in the NFL can run faster than St. Louis’ Tavon Austin.
In the most promising game of his rookie season, he made the Indianapolis defense look like it was standing still on touchdown catches of 57 and 81 yards in a 38-8 rout of the AFC South champions. Those two plays were preceded by a 98-yard punt return touchdown down the right sideline, the longest in the NFL all season.
"Everybody knows him for his elite speed," says St. Louis receiver Stedman Bailey, Austin’s teammate for three years at West Virginia before the Rams drafted both in the first three rounds in 2013. "But Tavon’s a really good wide receiver in general. He catches the ball very well, definitely can make anybody miss in space, and that’s what’s dynamic about him."
Considering that skill set, it’s clear Austin fell well short of expectations by catching only 40 passes for 418 yards in his first 13 games before an ankle injury ended his debut season. Other than the game against the Colts, he never surpassed 50 yards and caught only one pass longer than 25, a big disappointment for a guy clocked at a blazing 4.22 seconds in his fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Still, it’s easy to see why some are predicting a breakout year for the former two-time All-American, who has said he feels much more comfortable with the offense. He should also benefit from the addition of No. 1 receiver Kenny Britt, considering only tight end Jared Cook caught more passes and had more yards than Austin last year.
"It really doesn’t change my role," Austin says. "It’s going to help out for the best for all of us, not just for me, for Stedman, (Brian Quick), all of us."
Conversely, the loss of Sam Bradford figures to hurt the entire receiving corps, even though Austin and Bailey both say the group has just as much confidence in veteran Shaun Hill. Coach Jeff Fisher has said repeatedly the offense won’t see any changes, brushing aside concerns the 34-year-old career backup — with the exception of parts of 2008 and 2009 in San Francisco and then a good chunk of 2010 in Detroit — can’t make all the throws.
On paper at least, the Rams have their best receiving corps since Isaac Bruce’s last season in 2007, even with Bailey suspended the first four weeks for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Quick has impressed coaches during the preseason, though Austin has been suspiciously quiet with just five catches for 40 yards in three games.
He figures to be used in a variety of different ways, including reverses and again as the team’s primary punt returner. After all, this is a guy who moved to running back for West Virginia’s struggling offense in his senior season and rushed for 540 yards in his last four games, including a school-record 344 yards and 572 all-purpose yards against No. 13 Oklahoma.
It would be unfair to expect that kind of production from anyone, but the Rams will need the 5-foot-8 receiver to take a big step forward. It’s encouraging to note he jumped from 15 catches for 51 yards as a freshman to 58 catches for 787 yards as a sophomore, and Bailey believes his longtime teammate is ready to take the next step.
"The whole thing about understanding the playbook, being able to read defenses and just being comfortable with what he’s doing," Bailey says. "He can play fast without having to do so much thinking and therefore he looks a lot more smooth this year."
There’s no guarantee the occasional blow-by and over-the-shoulder catch in practice will translate to Sundays, but it’s a nice reminder of how explosive Austin can be. Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have hinted about a bigger role for Austin since nearly the beginning of the offseason, and he seems eager to comply.
At the same time, he’s not the type of player to talk much about his individual stats or potential. Instead, when asked about his own goals, Austin points to making the playoffs and reaching the Super Bowl.
"My thing is to play my role," Austin says. "Don’t do anything outside my role and just keep on from there."
It sounds simple, especially for a player with a natural ability to outrun just about everyone. But he must consistently combine that weapon with other skills to truly unlock his potential.
You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at email@example.com.