One of the biggest unknowns in the draft is how a player’s body will hold up in the NFL. In a business that general managers and scouts look to have answers for every question about incoming players, health is the incomplete box on scouting reports. They document height, weight, and past injuries, but those can’t always predict the future.
One big hit can lead to one big snap. That’s partly why teams still hesitate to draft smaller players — hence the height and weight standards. As a consequence, they miss out on longtime NFL players that sustain few major injuries in their career.
In this year’s draft, general managers are likely asking if West Virginia’s Tavon Austin could be another such longtime player who can stay relatively healthy. His tiny frame (5’8″, 174 pounds) doesn’t suggest it, and neither does his position of slot receiver. More often than not, slot receivers take a beating regardless of their size. See the 5’9″, 185-pound Wes Welker and the 6’4″, 225-pound Marques Colston as examples. Both have taken a beating in the pros, but both also have something in common: they’re not explosive players.
Unlike Austin, Welker and Colston lack a great burst, an ability to change direction quickly, and explosiveness to avoid big hits. They’re prone to taking severe hits as a result, but Austin isn’t because of his rare agility. He can make defenders miss at anytime despite their proper pursuit angles.
In addition to his agility, he’s built naturally low to the ground because of his lack of stature, which helps him get down quicker. He’s similar to Welker in that sense, who has shown a knack for catching passes and immediately going dead-legged. But as said, Austin’s agility and explosiveness enables him to take less intense hits.
An example of that came in a game against the Kansas Jayhawks (8:25 mark below) last season. It was late in the first quarter and the West Virginia Mountaineers were leading by a touchdown. Quarterback Geno Smith is in the shotgun set, and Austin’s in the slot to his right. The designed play is a fake screen to the running back to the right side of the field and a pass to Austin, who is running a shallow crossing route to the left.
When the play begins, Austin runs diagonally to his left, making it seem as if he’s going to throw a block, and he’s slightly jammed by the near defender. As the screen play develops to the right, the defender leaves Austin and runs to the running back. The other linebackers in the middle of the field do the same, leaving Austin all alone. Still in the pocket, Smith holds the ball as long as he can and avoids getting sacked by throwing it to Austin in the middle of the field.
Following a finger-tipping catch, the ball is in Austin’s hands and he’s running downfield. He comes next to the left hash and explodes to his right off of his right foot. Eight yards away from the end zone, Austin is met in the middle of the field by a defensive back, who attempts to tackle him but misses when Austin stops his momentum by sticking his right foot in the ground and leaping just behind the defender.
Another play that stood out came against Iowa State when Austin was in the backfield at the start of the play. It’s 3rd-and-two in the third quarter and the Mountaineers are leading 17-14. They have the ball on the left hash at the 27-yard line and are in pistol formation. Behind Geno Smith is Austin, who runs a simple swing route into the left flat at the snap. Simultaneously, the outside receiver runs a snag route that clears out the same flat.
On defense, Iowa State drops nine defenders into coverage, and not one covers Austin until he’s already completed his route and is looking at the quarterback. Seeing that Austin is open, Smith throws a soft pass that Austin catches in stride.
Once he’s caught the pass, it appears that there’s no chance he can get the first down. Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein has taken a good (not great) anticipatory angle that should lead him directly to Austin for a first down-saving tackle. However, Klein’s hips are a few degrees too much toward the sideline, and that gives the receiver an opportunity to stop his feet, spin away from the tackle, and fall forward across the marker as he avoids a big hit from a second defender (see the 2:36 mark below).
It’s tough to say with certainty whether Austin’s body will hold up in the NFL or not. Receivers of all shapes and sizes — some smaller, others bigger than him — have injuries. It’s a part of the game that teams are studying closely (read: analytically) to cut down the risk of selecting a potentially injury-prone player, but it’s still difficult to say how a player will fare when he takes contact.
In Austin’s case, he’s small, but he’s strong (14 bench reps of 225 pounds at the Scouting Combine), agile, and explosive. Provided he takes advantage of those attributes by taking care of his body after catching passes, he has a good chance of staying healthy, I think.
All videos are courtesy of draftbreakdown.com.