A week ago, Frank took an excellent look at Tavon Austin’s comparables. While metric-based analysts don’t particularly care for Austin, his comps in that piece actually look pretty good. I think they may overstate his NFL projection for a variety of reasons.
1) Small/fast receivers are a niche market. If you’ve been following Rotoviz, you know receivers who are both small and fast represent only a fraction of starting WRs at the NFL level. Even if we generously project Chris Givens and T.Y. Hilton as 2013 starters, such players account for approximately 10% of the starting spots. All of them were explosive in college on a per reception basis. Steve Smith, Santonio Holmes, and DeSean Jackson can take the top off a defense. Austin has numerous college highlights, but his per reception numbers were exceedingly pedestrian. He doesn’t fit the profile of a guy whose speed is valuable despite his size.
2) Possession receivers are not good draft choices. Austin recently volunteered a comparison to Wes Welker, perhaps realizing his collegiate yards per reception and target depth don’t suggest vertical ability. I’ve done a number of studies on possession receivers over the past several years, and the results paint successful possession receiver campaigns as outliers. Most teams don’t even really employ the ‘possession’ receiver except in rare instances. When we look at the handful of possession receivers that do exist – guys like Welker, Danny Amendola, Lance Moore, Antonio Brown, Davone Bess, and Percy Harvin – a couple things jump out. Most of these guys are slow and generated no draft buzz.
Because of his speed and rushing totals, Austin is most often linked to Harvin. However, there’s a significant risk that those two metrics are red herrings. His height/weight ratio is much more similar to the other players. The key takeaway might be that long speed is irrelevant if a player is not being used to stretch a defense. (In fairness to the scouting community, several scouts have also pointed this out in the last two weeks.)
The other takeaway is even more important. If the attributes that make a good possession receiver are inherently impossible to predict – both by scouts and by analysts – then you don’t draft possession receivers. You develop them. This was the mistake the Lions made last year in using a second round pick on Ryan Broyles.
3) NFL starters always separate from their college teammates. It’s incredibly strange that the two prospects generating the most buzz at receiver weren’t even the best receivers on their own teams; Justin Hunter and Stedman Bailey were. Historically, that’s a terrible sign. You can look through the list of NFL starters and be hard pressed to find anybody who fits that profile.
There have been a few recent first round picks with such a background. The Chargers selected Dwayne Bowe’s running mate in 2007 even though Craig Davis posted borderline numbers in both Height-adjusted Speed Score (HaSS) and Dominator Rating (combined college market share). Gonzalez and Ginn failed to separate from each other during Ohio State’s 2006 season and both slotted in behind Santonio Holmes in 2005. Neither posted a HaSS of first round quality. Ginn, especially, is eerily and depressingly similar to Austin.
|Height-adjusted SS||Dominator Rating|
As a general rule of thumb, you’d like to see first round picks exceed 110 in HaSS and 0.40 in DR.
4) His closest comp is Dexter McCluster. Scouts have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from their own historical comments on McCluster and to shoot down comparisons between McCluster and Austin. This is necessarily revisionist. McCluster has been a bust – perhaps due to terrible coaching and incorrect usage – but that doesn’t diminish his utterly electric collegiate play. The only real difference between the two players is long speed. Take a look at the two guys side by side.
McCluster and Austin are identical sizes. Austin possesses far more long speed, but their short area quickness is the same. (Any short shuttle under 4.1 is joystick quality.) Scouts have looked at Austin’s 344-yard, 2-TD rushing game against Oklahoma and suggested his lateral agility is superior, but that doesn’t hold up at all if you go back and watch McCluster’s 282-yard, 4-TD performance against Tennessee. As a result of such tape study, McCluster exploded up draft boards prior to the 2011 draft. Many respected scouts were suggesting he’d be a multi-threat weapon at the NFL level despite his size. We’re now hearing the same thing about Austin.
There are areas where McCluster is clearly the superior athlete, and he actually averaged over a yard more per reception in college. Since he caught 130 balls, that’s not a particularly small sample.
In the final analysis, I think McCluster, Ginn, and Randall Cobb are three closest comparisons to Austin. While McCluster and Ginn are somewhat unappealing, I don’t think this should be taken as a sign that Austin won’t be a good pro. (An advocate might even suggest he combines the best attributes of all three guys.) It just makes him a gigantic risk if he’s picked in the area of the draft where teams should be attempting to acquire future No. 1 wide receivers.