First, the Cowboys surprised everybody when it was announced they would be trading a sixth-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for Tavon Austin; then, if that wasn’t enough for you, America’s Team decided to deal 2017 fourth-round selection Ryan Switzer to the Oakland Raiders for 2016 second-round selection Jihad Ward. The first move was to help the offense, while the latter will help the defensive tackle position.
The move for Tavon Austin was surprising for a pair of different reasons. For one, no one saw this coming. No one was reporting that the Cowboys had interest in the speedy playmaker, much less interested enough to make a deal during the draft. Secondly, the Cowboys just drafted Michael Gallup and had more than a few receivers already on the roster. So, why trade for another?
Well, that last question was somewhat answered on Saturday. Although the former West Virginia Mountaineers star has primarily played in the slot during his five-season career, the Cowboys plan on using Austin as a change-of-pace back in Dallas.
The #Cowboys traded for a RB, not a WR. That’s how they view Tavon Austin. Kind of like they had with Lance Dunbar.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 28, 2018
This is important to note, because all offseason long we have heard on how the coaching staff will transition to more of a “Dak-friendly” offense. But what does that exactly mean? We discussed that very topic back in January. Yours truly mentioned on how Dak loved to utilize slot-receivers during his days at Mississippi State:
Dak loved to find his slot guys at Mississippi State. His go-to guys from that position were Jameon Lewis -- a quick, 5-foot-9 target -- and Fred Ross -- a bigger 6-foot-2 target, who was on the Cowboys’ radar in last year’s draft. He loves to have a guy that can create separation in the middle of the field. We saw his connection with Bease last season, but defenses took him out of the offense in 2017. Switzer showed what he can do against the Eagles in the season finale, so here’s hoping he gets a bigger role in the offense next season.
That last sentence is pretty awkward in hindsight, isn’t it?
Fortunately, Austin is a player with a similar skill-set to what the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year likes: a quick, shifty target that can make defenders miss and create big plays. The eighth overall selection of the 2013 NFL Draft was not the most consistent player during his career in a Rams uniform, but his speed and raw talent always allowed him to make a big highlight-worthy play every now and then.
Would playing Tavon Austin out of position for four seasons really be the most ridiculous thing Jeff Fisher has ever done? pic.twitter.com/d1Z88M1NRw— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) April 28, 2018
The wide receiver/running back/return man has played all over the field during his NFL career. He has 194 receptions for 1,689 yards and 12 touchdowns to go with 184 carries for 1,238 yards and nine scores in five seasons — including 13 receptions for 47 yards and 59 rushes for 270 yards and one touchdown this past season. Austin’s best year came in 2015, in which he accounted for 907 yards of total offense and nine total touchdowns.
Unfortunately for the talented do-it-all playmaker, he has been unable to become a consistent threat during his career — whether that is due to scheme-fit, coaching, or any other factor. But, in spurts, Austin has showed us that he is certainly capable of breaking a big play.
Tavon Austin is fast pic.twitter.com/Kr08z3TqOV— Football Central™ (@FootbalICentral) December 26, 2017
So, what is Austin bringing to the Big D? Let’s take a look at his 2013 NFL Draft scouting report from his NFL profile:
Slot receiver possessing elite acceleration with the ball, takes advantage of available lanes to explode for big gains. Shows excellent vision both as a runner out of the backfield, as a returner, and as a receiver. Not a frail receiver; plays tough, has some upper-body thickness, and bounces up quickly from hits. Varies the speed of his route, lulls defenders to sleep and takes off to create space on out routes or over the middle. Tough to grab after the catch in zone coverage. Flashes the hands to adjust to wide or high passes, as well as tracking balls over his shoulder. Also goes down to grab low throws. Displays excellent balance to tightrope the sideline. Often used on fly sweeps, using his elite quickness and acceleration to cut inside or get the corner for big plays. Can make the first man miss on punt returns and has the vision to slalom between players to the sideline or up the middle. Very difficult to track down from behind. Wins at every level of the field despite his size, and has been somewhat underutilized deep. Improved as a blocker, and will body up on bigger players.
Limited to the slot on most plays; lacks the size and strength most scouts prefer outside, or even as a kick returner. Hands are good, but not exceptional; will let some hot passes through his small hands and into his chest. Gets a lot of his yardage on shallow crosses, quick throws outside, and the fly sweep/”touch pass.” Might not have the chance to get the sideline as often at the next level, forcing him to lower the shoulder and get what’s available to him inside. Must prove he can hang onto the ball after taking big hits from NFL defenders. Will hesitate on punt and kick returns at times instead of immediately accelerating or trusting his blocking, and can get tripped up easily on contact. Incredible balance and stop/start ability.
Back in 2013, BTB’s Archie Barberio was very high on the WVU star:
When evaluating Austin, the first thing that stands out about him is his speed. Austin ran a blazing 4.34 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine and he also displays that speed and quickness on the football field. While he is really fast in a straight line, Austin also has the ability to accelerate and turn the jets on from anywhere on the football field. With the NFL game moving towards a up-tempo pace, Austin has the speed and quickness to become a unique weapon on the next level.
Austin has the speed to become a matchup problem for any cornerback, safety or linebacker. The speed puts him into a category of his own, but his versatility is also another quality that will make him valuable in the NFL. The only other player coming out of the draft in the past few years that I’ve seen similar to Percy Harvin was Randall Cobb, but Austin has the same type of ability to lineup in the backfield, in the slot or out wide.
So, why hasn’t he had the kind of career that many had hoped and, in some cases, expected? Some of the blame may go to Jeff Fisher. Not to pile on the former Titans and Rams head coach, but Fisher was not exactly the best or most creative play-caller in the world. Even still, Austin never really lived up to his draft slot; for as many exciting plays he has made, he also has some flaws. Plus, his 22 career fumbles (eight were lost) is a little concerning.
However, Sean McVay seemed to use Austin in more creative ways to get the ball in his hands and let him do what he does best. The young and creative play-caller lined Austin up at running back, used him on jet-sweeps and end-arounds, and more. McVay was able to get the speedy Austin in open space or lined up against slower linebackers: a recipe for disaster for defenses.
That last play is what I figure how the Cowboys are envisioning using Austin. As a running back in the Cowboys system, Austin won’t have to be “the guy”; rather, he will likely be utilized as third-down and change-of-pace back for when Ezekiel Elliott needs a breather. Or, when the Cowboys want to change things up and add a wrinkle.
The acquisition of Austin gives Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan a variety of different options to play with. If the Cowboys want to use the former first-rounder as a running back, his 1,200+ rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns shows he can make an impact. Austin can also be a factor as a receiver in the backfield, giving the Cowboys two pass catchers at the running back position.
Austin brings value in three areas for the Cowboys: a speedy back that can complement Zeke, Rod Smith, and the newly acquired bruising back Bo Scarbrough, a dynamic slot receiver for Dak Prescott that is likely an upgrade over Switzer, and a return man that can take a punt to the house — all can drastically improve a team that was battling for a playoff berth in late December.
He appears to like the trade:
— Tavon Austin (@Tayaustin01) April 28, 2018
Now, can this coaching staff figure out how to utilize Tavon Austin and bring the best out of the former first-round selection? We shall see.