One of the first things Stephen Jones said after the Cowboys had traded for the rights to Tavon Austin was to think of him as a running back. Though he’s always been designated as a receiver throughout his career, he’s played both positions in his NFL career at times. The true mystery about Tavon Austin is that you never really know how he’s going to be used as was pointed out in the final OTA practice:
We didn’t see much of Tavon Austin with the first team offense during the first two weeks of OTA practices that were open to reporters. But we saw a lot of Austin working with the first team today— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) June 6, 2018
Doin' all kinds of Tavon stuff, too. Lined up out wide, running out of the backfield, etc. etc. https://t.co/pfnO376lV9— David Helman (@HelmanDC) June 6, 2018
Scott Linehan mentioned weeks ago that he views Austin as a “receiver first” but changed his tune when asked about it more recently.
Liked this quote from Scott Linehan today.— Rob Phillips (@robphillips3) June 6, 2018
When asked if Tavon Austin is a WR or RB, Linehan said, “He’s Tavon. ... He can lineup anywhere at any time or place.” #cowboyswire
In the middle of an offseason, speculation is all folks have, so naturally everyone wants to know is he a receiver or a running back? Maybe he’s a “web back”, a made-up term thrown around a little recently. Tavon Austin is likely going to be the Cowboys' ultimate gadget player that they hope to use in a multitude of ways. However, that doesn’t answer the question of where he’s going to be designated when the 53-man roster is decided in a few months.
The team website has him listed with the running backs and that’s where he’s going to remain. If you look at all the Cowboys movement of the offseason, the majority of it has come at the receiver position. The Cowboys kept six receivers at final cuts last season and we should expect them to do the same this season. Out of the six they kept last year, only three are still on the roster: Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Noah Brown. They added two receivers in free agency with Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson. They added two receivers in the draft with Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson. Throw in Lance Lenoir, KD Cannon, plus a few more and what do you have? The answer is potential, but also more questions.
It makes total sense for the Cowboys to commit to going long at receiver this season, because every one of these receivers has something to prove. By designating Tavon Austin a running back, it leaves an extra spot for one of their younger guys. The Cowboys have made it clear that their objective is to build the most efficient passing offense tailored to Dak Prescott’s skill set. Still, though Prescott may get a ton of practice reps with these guys, he’s only going to see a handful of series in the preseason. When these down-roster receivers are out there trying to earn a roster spot, it’ll be with guys like Cooper Rush or Mike White throwing to them. The majority of these early 53-man projections tend to lean towards five receivers, including Austin. It’s really difficult to see the Cowboys feeling comfortable heading into the season with just five receivers.
In order to go long in one area, teams have to shorten the roster at another which is the beautiful part of listing Austin as a running back. It gives the Cowboys the chance to retain the rights to some of the guys like Noah Brown, Cedrick Wilson, KD Cannon or even Lance Lenoir. Who knows, maybe one of their UDFA’s will show up and snatch a roster spot.
The Cowboys are loaded at running back and the value in using a running back designation on Austin to keep numbers at receiver is too great to pass up. They already have a generational talent like Ezekiel Elliott entrenched as the starter. Even so, Rod Smith plus Bo Scarbrough add quality depth and Austin adds a multitude of things. Though Cowboys fans were really excited to see Darius Jackson back on the roster, my advice would be not to get too attached. When it comes down to it, there will only be room for four running backs and Tavon Austin will be one of them (we’re counting Jamize Olawale as his own designation of a fullback). The only way to accomplish their goals of resetting their receiver position is to play the numbers game. Without those household names that command extra attention from a defense, the best thing the Cowboys can do is be unpredictable with their receivers.
Everyone knows that roster building is key on strategy, just because a guy is labeled one thing doesn’t mean he can’t do another. The plan for the Cowboys has always been to lean on their offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott. After that, it’s about complete freedom for Dak Prescott to spread the ball around. Tavon Austin will merely be a phantom receiver designated as a running back allowing more opportunities for these young receivers to stake their claims.