ST. LOUIS — Tavon Austin doesn’t hide his disappointment with a rookie season that ended prematurely.
The No. 8 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft had finally found his footing late last season and was beginning to establish himself as the playmaker the Rams needed when the speedy wide receiver suffered an ankle sprain that caused him to miss the final three games.
"I was a little disappointed, but things happen for a reason," Austin told FOXSportsMidwest.com on Tuesday following the team’s OTA session. "Nobody wants to go in and get hurt, and unfortunately, that happened to me. But I’m going to bounce back."
The three games he missed were the first he’s ever missed in his life, Austin said. He called it humbling as well as a learning experience.
The timing of the injury, after a slow start, well, that was just cruel.
Austin caught six passes in each of his first three games, but his breakout performance came Nov. 10 in Indianapolis, when he returned a punt 98 yards for a touchdown and then caught two passes for 138 yards and two more scores in a 38-8 win.
The next week he had a 65-yard touchdown run in a win against the Bears at the Edward Jones Dome.
But Austin would catch only five more passes in the following two games before being sidelined with the ankle injury.
"It’s just all about how you come on," Austin said. "Some people come on late. Some take more time. That’s what happened with me. It’s all about patience. That’s one thing I had. I knew eventually it was going to come my way. I had made a couple big plays in the beginning of the season, but they got called back. So it’s all about just being patient and understanding."
Austin finished his rookie campaign with 40 catches — which ranked second behind tight end Jared Cook’s 51 on the team — for 418 yards and four touchdowns. He added 151 rushing yards and a touchdown and that one punt return score for a total of six TDs.
Not a bad debut, but not what many expected after the Rams traded up in the draft to get him, making Austin the highest-drafted offensive skill-position player.
The 5-foot-8, 176-pounder ranked seventh among rookies in receptions in 2013, ninth in total touchdowns, 11th in receiving yards and 19th in yards per reception (10.5).
"We’re not disappointed in what his production was last year at all," Rams coach Jeff Fisher told reporters in March at the owners meetings in Orlando. "One of the things that was misleading was he had two or three returns called back — one against Dallas — and then he got hurt. I think another year in the program, in the offense, OTAs, training camp, you’ll see more production. I think we’ll do a better job of using him now that we know what he’s capable of doing. Kind of looking forward to see him improve from year one to year two.”
Fisher and general manager Les Snead gave the Rams’ current wide receiver corps a vote of confidence during the seven rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft, opting not only to not take Clemson playmaker Sammy Watkins with the No. 2 overall pick, but choosing not to select any wide receivers during the three-day draft.
Though the Rams did sign former first-rounder Kenny Britt to a free-agent deal this offseason, as well as signing some undrafted free agents, it’s clear that Fisher and Snead are willing to rely on their young and relatively unproven group of wideouts.
"It’s all about just learning," Austin said. "There’s obviously going to be a learning curve. We’re a young corps ourselves. We just got here. The coaches and the players, we trust in each other. We definitely know what we have to do to get everything done and that’s what we do."
How much better can this group of wide receivers be?
"Way much better," Austin said. "We understand each other more, we understand Sam (Bradford). We’re definitely building a bond. We’re just going to keep pushing from there and hopefully by the end of the season we are where we want to be."
Austin’s improvement from his rookie to sophomore season figures to be one of the keys to how well this group of receivers performs this fall. A year older (now 23) and wiser, he says he has grown up some since last year, when he was a top draft pick coming out of West Virginia with eye-popping video game numbers.
"I just had time to grow mentally," Austin said. "It’s not really about physically. I had time to grow mentally. I understand the playbook more, I understand everything. Last year I was just out there just playing. This year I understand more. That’s what I’m working on."
He has goals in mind for his second season, but it involves wins more than receptions, touchdowns and postseason accolades. For a team fighting to break through and earn a playoff berth, that’s good news coming from a youngster who will be key in achieving that.
"No. 1 is to win," Austin said. "I’m not too much into individual stats. If that happens, that happens. Everybody wants to make it to a Pro Bowl, have 1,200 yards, 10 touchdowns and all that, but for me, No. 1 is I just want to win. I know if I do that, everybody, not just me, everybody’s stats will be up. To me it’s just winning and having fun."