Why you should care
Because the worst can be more delicious than the best.
If you watched HBO’s Hard Knocks this year, then you got a five-week look at the L.A. Rams. One person you almost never saw, however, was wide receiver Tavon Austin. Kind of surprising, since he recently signed a four-year, $42 million contract extension that made him the 13th-highest-paid player per year at his position.
After his performance on Monday Night Football last week against the San Francisco 49ers, though, some are wondering if we should see even less of Austin.
Tavon Austin was the worst wide receiver in the NFL last week.
That’s according to Advanced football stats site Football Outsiders’ rankings. And by “Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement,” or DYAR, Austin totaled a -60, meaning that a replacement-level wide receiver should be expected to pick up 60 more yards than his paltry 13. Austin was thrown to 12 times by quarterback Case Keenum but caught just four passes for 13 yards, an average of barely more than one yard per target. He also had at least two passes slip through his fingers. Though he’s more “weapon” than receiver — he gained 434 yards rushing in 2015 — it’s not a good sign that he was stoppable against a 49ers team expected to be among the worst in the NFL.
NFL writer Danny Kelly of The Ringer says one of the main criticisms of Austin is that he doesn’t run the typical routes you’d expect of a No. 1 receiver, and the 49ers could take him out of the game in short order. “That’s what we saw Monday night: a bunch of screen plays where he’s given the ball at or near the line of scrimmage, an end around, a swing pass where he lined up in the backfield as a running back,” says Kelly, adding that the Niners were ready for those types of plays, ”swarming to the ball to make tackles.”
As Robert Mays wrote this week, teams employed the short passing game at rates that far surpass last season, which should mean that Austin is a treasure among them all with his incredible cutback speed and vision, but that clearly wasn’t the case in Week 1. Joe McAtee, managing editor of the Rams blog Turf Show Times, says that while Austin can’t regularly win one-on-one match-ups up the sideline like most top receivers, Los Angeles didn’t have the luxury to let Austin walk when they have so few good players on offense outside of running back Todd Gurley. “Had they let him exit via free agency,” says McAtee, “that would make one of the worst wide receiver corps in the NFL even worse.”
And that’s where the team is left: They have to look like they’re trying. Coming back to Los Angeles after a 21-year absence, the Rams have extended Austin and Michael Brockers, traded up to No. 1 to draft quarterback Jared Goff and are rumored to be close to a three-extension for head coach Jeff Fisher, despite the fact that he hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003. The only way they can look as bad as they did on Monday and keep people coming back is to give the illusion that the future is bright, but just because Austin is paid like a No. 1, it clearly won’t stop him from playing like he’s dead last.