My opinion on Tavon Austin fluctuates depending on the perspective I'm considering him from. Placing myself in the shoes of a Seahawk scout, Darrell Bevell, John Schneider, or Pete Carroll, all yield a different take on what Austin could bring to the Seahawks. To a certain extent this should be the case with every prospect. However, the differing perspectives feel more pronounced when considering Tavon Austin.
From a fandom perspective, I think that it's a healthy exercise to consider how opinions on a player might vary within an organization. As we become more and more familiar with the tendencies of this front office, it's easy to start viewing it as a single entity, rather than a collection of individuals with differing opinions who may or may not reach a consensus. Sure, Pete Carroll is ultimately in charge and we can only assume that the coaches and front office staff buy into his philosophies. Yet that still leaves a lot of wiggle room for opinions and we know Carroll to be a very open minded.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand, I want to start with what the scout in me thinks of Tavon Austin. Then I will carry that scouting report into the realm of the decision makers.
Tavon Austin finished his career at West Virginia as one of the most electrifying college players in recent memory. He had 36 all purpose touchdowns over his final three seasons and had 16 as a Senior. As a Junior he led the FBS in all purpose yards per game with 198. He upped that number to 230 as a Senior and won the Paul Hornung Award, which is given annually to the nation's most versatile player.
Though small in stature (5-9 171), Austin possesses outstanding athleticism with elite quickness, acceleration, and fluidity. His top speed, lateral agility, and leaping ability aren't quite as amazing but are still very good. He has some upper body bulk to handle hits from larger defenders but doesn't play with any functional strength or physicality.
Austin plays the slot at a high level. He's crafty against zone and will often find open space for short throws. He doesn't 'wiggle' enough in his break to consistently create separation against man coverage (I think he can develop this). He will lull corners off the line before exploding into his route though. Austin didn't run many deep routes in college but he has plenty of speed and his stop-start ability can be deadly on double moves.
In contrast to most receivers who drop too many passes, Austin has excellent concentration and unnatural hands. His hands are simply too small to ever be a consistent hands-catcher. Fastballs will always give him trouble. He tracks and adjusts extremely well though; high passes, low passes, behind passes, over-the-shoulder... Austin can catch 'em all (yup, I went there). He's also tough over the middle and can hold on through hits.
On offense, Tavon Austin is one of the most instinctive and decisive runners I've ever seen. Thoughts like "weather the storm" or "dance to space" are entirely foreign to him. He is fearless and entirely dependent on speed. In a sea of big-bodies, anything less than total commitment to jukes and cuts just seems counterproductive. Absurd even. Nothing about his approach should change at the next level. Despite a complete lack of power, Austin has good balance to overcome lesser contact.
Unfortunately, the decisiveness that Austin runs with on offense seems to disappear in the return game. As strange as it sounds, Austin looks tentative until the waves crash and he's once again submerged in a sea of big bodies. He's still a dangerous returner on both kicks and punts, but NFL coaches will ask him to start taking what's there initially.
Austin has the competitive nature you that hope to see from an undersized player. Further, he showed much more than a mere taste for big plays in college. Dude went back for a second and third helping. Perhaps more importantly, he generated splash plays in a way that could translate to the pros - by using his blockers and reversing the field at the second or third level, rather than behind the line of schrimage.
If Austin has a champion within the Seahawks' inner circle, it's not difficult identify who that would be. When Darrell Bevell arrived two years ago, we all had visions of Golden Tate being used how Percy Harvin was used in '09 and '10 with bubble screens, end arounds, and lining up at running back. This season we saw Tate used on bubble screens and the occasional trick play, with success, but for the most part he ran conventional receiver routes.
I have some theories why Bevell hasn't featured Tate in the same way he featured Harvin, but no matter the reasoning, he hasn't and that's unlikely to change. Despite lacking the same type of strength that Harvin has, Austin could fill a similar role in the playbook. With a mobile quarterback, a Swiss Army Knife playmaker, and a bubble screen bull, Darrell Bevell could design and call creative plays to his heart's content.
Concerning Pete Carroll's vision for this offense and how he will value Austin, I would like to direct you to Constraint Theory and one of my favorite articles from this past season here at FG. Danny writes,
Essentially, constraint plays are those that exist on your playsheet outside of your base, core group of plays. The Seahawks' base offense is, at its core, a wide-zone/tight-zone run game with rather basic shot pass plays and a few essential intermediate WCO-style route concepts meant to move the chains. I read Greg Cosell's weekly film notes over at FantasyGuru.com, and I don't think a week goes by without Cosell noting that the Seahawks pass game 'remains very limited regarding concepts and route combinations.'
"Constraint plays ... work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter."
In the weeks following this article, we saw the read-option become more and more entrenched in the gameplan. I think that the read-option and even standard zone running plays could be viewed as both core plays and constraint plays. With a read-option, the threat of a running QB 'constrains' the identified edge defender from crashing down on the running back. With a zone running scheme, the threat of a cut-back 'constrains' the entire defensive front seven from over-pursuing.
If executed correctly, these plays are especially dangerous because they react to a real-time defensive movement. On a normal constraint play, the play call is in reaction to a defensive movement on either a previous play or before the snap. There's no guarantee that the defensive player will follow through with his movement. Through the sweep series (basically a running play moving parallel to the line of schrimage), Austin represents the potential for another real-time constraint play. Austin presses the edge with his speed, yet constrains the defense with his ability to explode upfield for huge gains if over-pursued.
Austin also bolsters the threat of normal constraint plays on both fronts. Moving him around behind the line of schrimage will draw the attention of defenders. They'll be tempted to 'cheat' in an effort to keep his speed in check. This should open up play-action off misdirections to Austin. As I said in the scouting report, he can also take advantage of play action to Lynch with his vertical speed and concentration catching the ball over his shoulder. Then of course he's a major threat on all varieties of screen passes.
When asked about future use of the read-option in his end of the year press conference, Pete Carroll gave his support, saying "it's wide open to expand what we're doing." He also expressed a desire to stay on "the cutting edge." Well, Tavon Austin would give this offense every opportunity to stay on the cutting edge in terms of creative play calling.
On the other hand, I'm not sure Pete will receive as much support for Austin from his chief personnel adviser, John Schneider. While I'm sure Schneider will appreciate the rarity of Austin's skill set and how Bevell could incorporate him into the offense, would he still hold the same value if Bevell moved on in 2014 for a head coaching job? Wouldn't Russell Wilson appreciate someone a little taller (easier to see)? Is the roster really strong enough to pass on multiple greater needs with an early pick for a glorified utility player?
I don't know how Pete will feel about these concerns. What I do know is that Tavon Austin deserves a lot more attention as a possibility for the Seahawks. While not a need, the slot is an important role and the offense struggled badly on third down in 2012 with Doug Baldwin injured. Austin would provide depth there and perhaps allow Baldwin more opportunity to play on the outside. Austin could learn a lot from watching Leon Washington's efficiency in the return game for a season. We know he could have a big impact there.
As it stands today, Tavon Austin will probably be available at 25, but not much past that. Join me in not caring about coaches in the Super Bowl with my last name and let's talk draft. What are your thoughts?