Rams land Austin, the Draft’s biggest potential playmaker

ST. LOUIS — The ceiling shook.

In a room above the heads of reporters who had just watched the St. Louis Rams take Tavon Austin with the eight pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, the men who made that news happen were celebrating loudly upstairs.

For the first time since St. Louis selected Torry Holt seventh in 1999, the Rams took a wide receiver in the first round. They sacrificed to do so, turning their 16th pick into the eighth by giving the Buffalo Bills a second-round selection. It was necessary to secure the guy everybody wanted, the player who has an unparalleled way of creating what the men in the second-story draft room at Rams Park expressed by slamming their feet into the floor — excitement.

“He had something we just don’t have,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher would say later. “Something that’s just hard to find in this league.”

“That was one player the defensive staff wanted to pick, so they didn’t have to defend him,” Rams general manager Les Snead gushed.

It was the general manager who made the phone call to Austin, who was waiting with the rest of college football’s best at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Snead and Fisher weren’t the only ones after the West Virginia speedster. He had been trending up on NFL draft boards for weeks.

“We felt, a few days ago, that we were probably going to have to go up and get him,” Fisher said.

Yes, Austin is small. And not the ironic kind of ‘small’ used to compare NFL giants. Austin is small for college ball. Hell, he’s small for high school. So small that, after he put a Rams hat on his head and held up a jersey, he stood four inches shorter than Deion Sanders during an interview with NFL Network.

“That’s definitely not going to ever go nowhere,” the 5-foot-9, 174-pound receiver said of his size on a conference call minutes later. “I can’t do nothing about it. I would like to change it if I could get two inches, but I can’t. So, I’m going to keep on pushing.”

He’s done OK as is. His 2,910 all-purpose yards as a senior were fourth-most in NCAA history. He scored 17 touchdowns last season, two of which came on special teams. The key is his speed. Austin ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.

“I can’t remember the last time someone ran me down from behind,” Austin said.

Speed like that outruns big hits and injuries (Austin hasn’t missed one football game in eight years). Speed like that makes NFL teams forget about size. Speed like that can be used anywhere: slot receiver, return man, running back.

All those positions were discussed when Austin met with the Rams. He interviewed with the team in St. Louis, then the organization’s brass went to West Virginia to watch him work out before the Draft.

“I had a sense they liked me,” Austin said.

Looking back, what happened Monday afternoon made so much sense. At a pre-Draft press conference in this same building, Fisher had talked about small receivers. He said they do fine when a quarterback is tall (Sam Bradford is 6-foot-4). He, along with Snead, dismissed the importance of high scores on the Wonderlic test — a 50-question multiple choice exam designed to measure a player’s cognitive ability (Austin reportedly got a 7).

The Rams knew Austin was their guy, probably then. They made the moves to land him, and the excitement in St. Louis was palpable.

You can follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred) or email him at frederickson.ben@gmail.com