Nov 23, 2012; Ames, Iowa, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers running back Tavon Austin (1) rushes up field against Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Matt Morton (39) during the second half at Jack Trice Stadium. West Virginia defeated Iowa State 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

2013 NFL Draft: Pivotal Prospects - Tavon Austin

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With OT Lane Johnson being the biggest prize for some upwardly-mobile NFL team in the 2013 NFL draft, he’s not the ONLY prize.

Nay…West Virginia slot WR Tavon Austin is the other. I considered a couple like BYU’s Ziggy Ansah and Alabama’s 6’3″ CB Dee Milliner, but the draft is deep in good corners and Ansah has questions about his experience and how long it may take for him to blossom to his full potential, so I don’t see anyone jumping up into the top half of the draft to grab such a player.

Sure…anything COULD happen, but I’m thinking about the most likely scenarios at this point in time.

Austin is one of those “Combine Heroes” that put themselves squarely on the map with an out-of-this-world showing in the drills…very much like Memphis product Dontari Poe did last year.

However, Austin has the game tape to back up his numbers…numbers like 4.27 in the 40-yard dash. That’s only 3/100ths of a second slower than East Carolina’s Chris Johnson put up.

Dec 1, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide offensive linesman D.J. Fluker (76) celebrates winning the 2012 SEC Championship game against the Georgia Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome. Alabama won 32-28. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah – WOW!

Slot receivers used to be guys who were too small or too slow to play on the outside and were somewhat of an afterthought a scant 5 or 10 years ago. In today’s pass-happy NFL, however, the really good ones are quite prized.

Wes Welker is the prototype for that position and his signing with the Denver Broncos to team up with Peyton Manning is a testament to this. Furthermore, the Patriots replaced him with one of the next-best things: former St. Louis Rams slot WR Danny Amendola.

Both are very similar players…small in stature, light in weight, but shifty, quick, and darned near impossible to cover. Slot receivers don’t have a sideline defender to help the corner out, so an inside receiver is going to be the most difficult to cover.

Corners can press-cover the split end – the old-school term for the WR on the other side of the formation from the tight end, as the tackles HAVE to be “covered” – as in someone has to be on the line of scrimmage between them and the sideline – or else it’s an illegal formation.

The flanker is the one who lines up off the line of scrimmage – usually the WR on the right side – since most teams are right-handed and the TE is on the right side. The flanker has to line up at least a yard behind the line of scrimmage and is technically in the offensive backfield.

Jan 20, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) runs past Baltimore Ravens cornerback Corey Graham (24) during the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Therefore, anyone in the “slot” – on either side – also plays off the line for the same reason. It’s in the rulebook.

Smaller guys have room to make a move before encountering the first defender. Welker and Amendola are wonderful players, but both lack one key component that cannot be coached: speed.

Austin, under the OLD collective bargaining agreement, might’ve well been a “Six Million Dollar Man,” but thanks to the NEW CBA, the rookie wage scale will dictate his first contract’s salary.

Whoever drafts him will be getting someone with plenty of speed to burn and at a position where he’s almost guaranteed to be able to get open at least on short and intermediate routes. That’s where most “slot” receivers make their living.

Tavon Austin has the ability to take a short pass and just GO – much like Welker did against the Miami Dolphins on Monday night a few years ago with a 99-yard TD catch-and-run…something he’s really not built to do, but a shoddy Miami defense was out of position enough on that play for him to pull it off. However, Welker’s normal yds/catch is rarely much above 10 per.

Austin’s 40 is probably around 3/10ths of a second faster than Welker’s, who looks like a 4.55 guy on tape.

The result is, he’d give some lucky team a screaming-fast Mach-5 weapon where he can get open almost anytime and that’s a “luxury” a number of teams are dying to have.

Nov. 25, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA: St. Louis Rams wide receiver (16) Danny Amendola dives for a pass in the second quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The real question is “How high can he go?”

Well, my own feeling is the highest he’ll go is to Buffalo at #8 overall, but again, a guy like Austin IS a luxury in many ways, and teams drafting in the top-ten aren’t there because they lack ONLY an explosive 3rd WR.

If Buffalo opts for another position at #8, like QB Geno Smith perhaps, the next 3 teams have even more pressing needs:

The New York Jets at 9 need help on the OL and pass rushers, and depending on how high a team is on Austin, could trade back.

The Tennessee Titans took a WR in the first last year in Baylor’s Kendall Wright and don’t need another slot receiver – they need help on the interior OL for one thing and won’t draft Austin at #10.

As I mentioned in the article regarding Lane Johnson, the San Diego Chargers need a LT the most and OL in general at #11.

That brings us once again to the Miami Dolphins at #12.

The Dolphins are going to be one of the most interesting teams to watch in the upcoming draft for two reasons. First, they signed so many players as free agents in the offseason, including the incumbent NFL’s-fastest WR in Mike Wallace, but need that LT with Jake Long’s departure and Jonathan Stewart’s unsteady play as a rookie.

Jan 4, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas A

Secondly, they have that huge bag ‘o picks to root around in and pull out for trades as it is. If they don’t trade up for Lane Johnson, will they sit still…and take Tavon Austin at #12 overall?

You have to admit, the prospect – both literally and figuratively – is quite tantalizing. Imagine being a defensive coordinator having to defend BOTH Mike Wallace AND Tavon Austin! YEE-OWWW!

The field turf in south Florida could literally catch on fire with those two running around and at least for me, it’s the direction *I* would probably go – simply because of the Wallace signing. If they do draft Austin, they’d go from 2012 and only Brian Hartline (who runs a decent 4.5-40 himself at 6’3″-ish) as a real receiving threat to Hartline, Wallace, Austin, and Dustin Keller at TE – all of whom are a threat of some sort in the passing game.

Had they held onto and re-signed RB Reggie Bush, the addition of Austin would have made them the NFL’s fastest offense BY FAR when it comes to overall team speed at the skill positions, but don’t forget that they drafted Lamar Miller last season and he’s got some speed of his own.

If Austin IS on the board and the Dolphins decide both not to take him and get an offer they can’t refuse, they could well trade down and parlay that #12 overall into some draft picks for later years…”keeping the pipeline full” for rising second-year Head Coach Joe Philbin.

Miami does have the most flexibility of any team in the 2013 draft, but they could do none of the above. They could go for D.J. Fluker of Alabama, a right tackle that could likely make the transition to the RT spot in the NFL without undue difficulty…or they could go ahead and draft the highest-rated cornerback on the board, filling their most dire need and freeing them up to draft the “best available” for most of the rest of the draft.

Finally, the question on the minds of Carolina Panthers fans. What if Austin is available at #14?

Dec 9, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; St. Louis Rams wide receiver Brandon Gibson (11) runs after catching a pass as Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore (27) pursues during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Rams beat the Bills, 15-12. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The answer will frustrate some fans no matter what that answer is. The “smart” play is to trade back to whomever wants to jump in front of the St. Louis Rams at #16, who lost Danny Amendola in free agency to the New England Patriots, and who have no replacement for him. The team also lost WR Brandon Gibson to….yes, those pesky Miami Dolphins in free agency, but added TE Jared Cook from the Titans. Sam Bradford still needs targets especially with Amendola’s loss and Tavon Austin is a glaringly obvious direction for them to go at #16 overall.

So much so that everyone in the NFL knows it and would HAVE to jump in front of them somewhere to ensure his capture.

Make no mistake – the 3rd of the top-tier offensive tackles will be Trade Target One and in the top ten, if that is going to happen at all. Austin is the other “mock draft bracket-buster” out there and could go as high as #8 either in the Bills’ organic pick or a trade. If a trade’s going to happen FOR Austin AND the Panthers are on the board with the clock ticking, the Panthers will have a decision to make.

With only those 5 draft picks and a seemingly-conservative GM David Gettleman, the Panthers will actually be in a nice position. Trade back or take the fastest WR in any NFL draft in years?

Sure, there are other players the Panthers could take at #14 overall who would be plug-in day-one starters but ideally they could use at least FIVE “new starters” if you don’t include the moves they’ve already made in the offseason – low-cost moves for journeymen that could help the team but probably will never be star players for various reasons.

The flashy, exciting choice would be to give Cam a true game-breaking threat – one that WR Steve Smith has ceased to be as he’s lost a step with age and no second WR that has seized the opportunity…again, for varying reasons.

The prudent thing for the Panthers would be to indeed trade back, as tantalizing as it would be to draft Austin. Don’t forget, the Panthers just GOT a very, very similar young man in last year’s draft…Arkansas WR/KR Joe Adams.

While it’s way too early to label Adams a “bust,” his play last season left a lot to be desired. He can’t hang onto the football, and that’s the first thing that has to change for him to have ANY shot at being an NFL player but at the same time it’s probably too early to write him off right now and draft a replacement for him what with all the areas of need the Panthers have…RT, OG, DT, WR, OLB, and FS.

Now, I wasn’t a math major in college, but I count 6 positions and 5 draft picks.

Trade back.

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