If you checked out the RotoViz Rookie WR rankings (and you shouldn’t be here reading this until you’ve done so) you know that I tied with Ryan Rouillard for being the highest on Tavon Austin. I knew that I ranked him highly, but it was still shocking to me given my ongoing jihad against undersized wide receivers. I don’t like undersized WRs because I think they are overvalued and underproduce when it comes to touchdowns. NFL games are scored in terms of points and not missed tackles, and so I think touchdowns tend to be pretty important. They are after all worth more than 2X what a field goal is worth.
On twitter the other day I asked what the over/under for Tavon Austin receiving touchdowns might be in his rookie year. The responses were basically as follows:
- It depends on what team he ends up on
- Somewhere under 6
- Somewhere over 4
My takeaway was that people recognized that some amount of Tavon’s value would be derived from the team, which means that a team is probably doing as much for him as he’s doing for the team… a problematic relationship when you’re supposed to be drafting help for an NFL team. My other takeaway was that despite the perception that Tavon is a swiss army knife that can help a team in a bunch of ways, people don’t actually expect him to put a lot of points on the board. That struck me as being reasonable given that of the receivers to record 10 receiving touchdowns in a season over the past 4 years (this has happened 37 total times) the player has been over 200 pounds in 85% of such instances.
So if I don’t think that Tavon is likely to record a 10 touchdown season and I don’t think NFL teams should be using first round picks on small WRs, how did I end up ranking him as my 2nd WR? There are two reasons. First, he came out as #2 when I ran a regression that included things like size, weight, vertical, market share, and rushing yards. So my own model had him ranked that highly. The model includes rushing yards for now, and perhaps Tavon will be the case that results in the removal of rushing yards, but for now my best assumption is that they matter based on the data to-date.
But primarily as it relates to Tavon, I really don’t want to be taking the other side of the bet vs. the guys that hand out playing time. When Seattle GM John Schneider was asked what SEA would be doing during the opening night of the draft, because they traded their first round pick for Percy Harvin, he replied that they would be watching Percy Harvin highlights on Youtube. Schneider is probably one of the smartest GMs in the league and yet that struck me as an extremely dumb thing to say. Percy Harvin’s career high for receiving touchdowns is 6. Harvin has 4 career rushing touchdowns, the longest of which is 17 yards. It’s true that Harvin is also productive in the return game as Minnesota leads the league in kick returns for touchdowns going back to 2009, with 5 such touchdowns. Of course, Seattle has 4 kick return touchdowns over that time.. so there’s that. My point here is that even a really smart NFL executive has basically been attracted to a player because of the perception that he’s a game breaker, when that player has done very little game breaking. I don’t give Harvin any credit for his rushing yards, as rushing is something you should be doing in the red zone (where you’re better off with a big RB) and to finish games. As a receiver Harvin actually probably cost the Vikings points as they threw to him a lot in the red zone when they had much better options.
So I don’t think it matters in Austin’s case whether or not he’s able to positively influence a game, I only think it matters whether teams think that he can. If they do, they’re going to feed him the ball and that’s going to result in fantasy points. I’m sure we’ll see all manner of end-arounds, screen passes, Austin lined up in the backfield, throwing to Austin underneath, etc. The idea that you can just “put the ball in his hands and let him do the rest” is an idea which is still prevalent in football, even if it tends only to produce touchdowns in extreme rare cases. And I actually don’t think it really matters what team he ends up on. The worse the offense he goes to, the more touches he’ll get. The better the offense, the more scoring opportunities he’ll be able to snipe from others.
I think there’s another consideration that I should mention which also went into my thinking and that is that this is a WR class that may be sort of deep, but that’s because every guy has some warts. I don’t like any of the Patton/Wheaton/Woods/Terrance Williams group very much. I do like Hopkins, but I’m making a probability based judgment by putting him at #1 and it’s still possible that his lack of speed could be an issue. So if there were any sure things in this draft class, I might be lower on Austin. But as it is, I just think he checks out ok on a relative basis. It’s also unlikely that I ever end up owning Austin, because other fantasy drafters will always value that game breaking perception more than I do. When I draft receivers I’m typically looking for the bigger #1-type receivers that might also be undervalued, and Austin is unlikely to ever fit either category.