The St. Louis Rams are riding the crest of a modest two-game winning streak, but all is not well in Rams Nation. In the midst of that streak, the Rams first round draft choice, the one they traded up to get, WR Tavon Austin, has been absent.
The rookie who cost the Rams plenty of draft capital, if not a whole lot of cash, is playing second fiddle in the Rams' passing game to a fourth rounder (Chris Givens) and a third rounder (Austin Pettis). After being featured extensively in preseason and in the first four games, Austin's playing time slimmed down to just three offensive snaps in the Rams win in Houston last week.
Austin's drops (7) certainly have something to do with that, as does his inability thus far to get much after the catch. Austin, like a lot of young wide receivers, is getting an eye-opening look at real life in the NFL, where every defensive back can run and tackle.
That's why Rams fans need to take a deep breath and give Austin some time to adjust to the NFL game.
Austin is still lightning in a bottle in the open field. The problem is that open field closes a lot more quickly than it did when Austin was running rampant in college. A former NFL defensive back confided that he often took plays off in college. In fact, there were times when he could pretty much relax the entire game if the opposition didn't have an NFL-caliber WR lining up. The talent difference between those who can play in the NFL and those who don't is that great.
Once in the NFL, that talent gap is non-existent. Every corner Austin faces now is All-American caliber or better. He can't get by on just talent alone. That's why he's going to have to learn how to run good routes to create some separation. It's also why Austin is going to have to get used to catching balls in traffic. Gone are the days when he had enough separation to catch a ball securely and turn and look upfield. The closing speed of NFL defensive backs is off the charts.
He's still learning the pro offensive game, too. As much as we can criticize Brian Schottenheimer's often vanilla play-calling, no NFL offense outside of Philadelphia is going to look anything like the one Austin was in while at West Virginia. It's going to take a little time for him to learn his role. The reciprocal is true as well. Austin is a unique talent and the Rams are still learning how to best use him.
Add to that Austin's stature. Unlike AJ Green or Julio Jones, whose height and reach allows Andy Dalton and Matt Ryan to put passes anywhere in their vicinity with a chance to be caught, Austin is very under-sized. This is really the only concerning part of his game. While he can make adjustments to the speed of the game and the complexity of the offense, Austin won't be growing any time soon.
Still, Austin isn't the second coming of Mardy Gilyard as some fans seem to think. He's a very talented receiver who will make big plays for the Rams, both as a receiver and as a return man. His kind of speed can't be coached. Once he starts to understand the speed and his offensive role, his play should become much more consistent.
When that happens, watch out.
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