After a few days of speculation, it seems that it’s become official that Tavon Austin is re-signing with the Cowboys. While contract details haven’t yet emerged, the speedy player who’s been used in several different positions will be keeping the star on his helmet next year.
#Cowboys are keeping WR Tavon Austin, source says. They've agreed to a deal.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 14, 2019
The 2018 season was Austin’s first year in Dallas after having spent all five years of his career with the Rams. As the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Austin was a bit of a disappointment in the NFL, with his best single-season receiving yards total only amounting to 509 yards.
At 5’8” and roughly 180 pounds, Austin doesn’t have the size to routinely contribute as an outside receiver, but his blazing speed (he ran a 4.34 40-yard dash) and athleticism has always made him an intriguing utility option. In his five years with the Rams, Austin racked up 1,689 receiving yards as well as 1,238 rushing yards.
So when the Cowboys traded for Austin last year, they announced he would play the position of a web-back, which coaches vaguely defined as a running back/wide receiver hybrid. The reality is that Austin was pretty much just a receiver who occasionally ran the ball off a jet sweep. His six carries in 2018 is evidence of how little his running skills were used; in fact, it was the first time in his career Austin hadn’t scored a rushing touchdown.
The general consensus is that Austin’s potential wasn’t fully utilized by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who seemingly only used Austin on the jet sweep and deep passing attempts. But now Kellen Moore is taking over, and the praise for his innovative football mind makes me think that he’ll be able to use Austin in a more effective way. But what might that look like?
In a lot of ways, Austin reminds me of the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill. Both are under six feet and ran very similar 40-yard dash times, and both have demonstrated how dangerous they can be in the open field, especially returning punts. But Hill is a featured receiver in one of the best offenses in the league. So I looked at some of the ways that Kansas City head coach Andy Reid gets Hill involved in the game.
One of the things that has made Reid such a great offensive mind over the years is that he puts his players in a position to show off their best skills. It’s no different with Hill, as Reid frequently uses quick passing concepts to get Hill the ball in the open field. This fits a lot better in Reid’s West Coast philosophy on offense than it does with the Cowboys’ Air Coryell philosophy, but Dallas has implemented enough West Coast influences in the past to where they can mimic this with Austin.
In watching some of Hill’s bigger plays, I noticed that there are three basic concepts Reid uses for his speedy receiver, but perhaps the most important one is the jet sweep. The difference here is that Linehan in 2018 never called more than one jet sweep for Austin in a game, but Reid does it with Hill multiple times throughout a game. Watch this supercut below:
A common theme in these plays is pre-snap motion. Often the Chiefs line up in 12 personnel and have both tight ends next to each other, before motioning one off to the other side. Other times, Hill himself is the one who moves from one side of the field to the other. This helps the blockers get an idea of who is keying on Hill and who they need to block first in order for Hill to get into the second level.
The other important part of these jet sweeps is that the quarterback always fakes as if he’s handing it off to the running back after giving the ball to Hill on the jet sweep. This leaves open the possibility to run a fake jet sweep and hand it off to the running back and break tendencies, catching the defense over-pursuing to stop Hill. But none of that happens without a high frequency of jet sweeps being run in a game, which Linehan never really did with Austin last year.
The second concept that Reid uses a lot with Hill is the jailbreak screen pass. We’re all familiar with a screen concept, but the jailbreak modifier refers to having several offensive linemen immediately run to the play side and block, rather than just having another receiver or tight end block for the receiver running the screen. Check out these highlights of Hill’s jailbreak screens:
The Chiefs tend to use this concept with an empty backfield, which stretches out the defense and makes it harder for them to cover everyone. Because of the nature of the screen, it gets the ball in Hill’s hands almost immediately and sets him up with multiple blockers downfield, at which point Hill can use his speed to take off. In 2018, most of the receiver screens that Dallas tended to call had only receivers or tight ends blocking out in front, but utilizing more of the jailbreak concept can help create space.
One intriguing detail of this concept for the Chiefs is how often they line up with Hill in the backfield as a running back before motioning him out wide for the screen. This can trick the defense and get a linebacker to cover Hill if the defense is in man coverage, at which point the Chiefs have a dream matchup for Hill. So, too, would Austin thrive in that kind of situation. The screen also helps get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly and minimize the chances of getting sacked, which happened to Dak Prescott all too often last year.
The third concept that Kansas City uses to set up Hill in good position is the underneath option route, which is actually a big component of the Air Coryell offense that Reid adapted into his offense. Cowboys tight ends coach Doug Nussmeier used a high frequency of option routes when he ran offenses in college, and he incorporated those concepts with his tight ends in 2018. It can be used for Austin too, as evidenced by these highlights of Hill running underneath option routes:
The idea of the option route is to let the receiver read the defense and slip into a crease to catch an easy pass. Reid uses it a bit differently, as he usually has Hill line up in the slot on these kinds of plays so that if the defense is in man coverage, Hill can try to run his defender into another by crossing by a nearby tight end or other receiver’s route. If the defense is in zone coverage, Hill just has to find a pocket in the zone to run to as the other skill players typically run deeper routes that stretch out the zone.
This allows the quarterback to make a fairly easy and, if everything goes right, quick throw to Hill and set him up with some space to exercise all his speed and quickness. In the past, Cole Beasley has been rather exceptional at these routes, which is a valid reason for Austin not having run more of these, but now that Beasley is gone, Austin is a prime candidate to get some looks in that concept.
The reality is that Austin isn’t a Tyreek Hill clone, but his skill set is very similar. The Cowboys clearly like Austin, but they probably want to use him for more than just punt returns. If Moore wants to back up all the talk about how brilliant he is, finding a way to really implement Austin would be one way to go. And if he’s able to scheme things open for Austin like the Chiefs do with Hill, it could make the Cowboys’ offense exponentially better in 2019.