Jarius Wright explaining to his Arkansas teammates that he’s awesome but evidently not as awesome as Tavon Austin.
I continue to be dumbfounded by the idea of Tavon Austin as a potential second round pick, much less a top 15 selection. Austin has a mediocre Dominator Rating and very poor Height-adjusted Speed Score. In comparing him to Dexter McCluster and Ted Ginn, I also examined the way in which his long speed is utterly irrelevant if he’s being projected as an underneath receiver.
I’ve evidently made very little headway in this argument because I can’t even convince my fellow RotoViz writers, analysts who basically share the same methodology. The strangest thing about the whole Tavon Austin v. Stedman Bailey discussion is the idea of tape study. I’ve been scrolling through some of my taped Combine coverage, and you would not be able to play a drinking game using “when you put on the tape” without ending up in the hospital. Oddly, when you actually do put in tape of almost any West Virginia game you see Bailey getting open at all levels of the defense, and Austin getting open for glorified handoffs. Evidently one of those skills translates better to the NFL, but I guess it’s not the one you’d think.
Let’s assume for a moment though that Austin will have value at the NFL level. What virtually identical receivers might we target in deep leagues?
*The Secret Superstar is about to be the focus of multiple RotoViz articles, so stay tuned.
These are the most similar receivers from an athletic perspective over the past couple of years. It’s tempting to suggest Austin would have run a ridiculous 3-cone time, but his short shuttle is right in line with the times run by Quinton Patton (4.01) and Markus Wheaton (4.02). Those players averaged 6.85 in the 3-cone.
Recently, Frank debuted the Physical Score for evaluating rookie WRs and Austin finished last among the big names. Austin holds a slight edge on Damaris Johnson. Both Mike Thomas and the SS are pretty clearly better athletes. If you subscribe to the idea that it might be helpful for a tiny receiver to be able to get off the ground, you might prefer Jarius Wright to Austin as well. Of course, athleticism is only half of the question. I picked these receivers because they bear some resemblance to Austin in college production as well.
* The asterisk next to the Dominator Rating for Austin, Johnson, and Thomas reflects that I’ve given them credit for their rushing prowess using the same technique I employed in my Cordarrelle Patterson analysis. There are more sophisticated methods, but this works as a shorthand.
The closest comp in terms of dual threat ability is Damaris Johnson. While Johnson faced a lower level of competition at Tulsa, he averaged more yards per reception and more yards per rush. His 10-plus yard average on 55 rushes is frankly beyond ridiculous. This helps to explain why the Eagles chose to use the undrafted rookie as an occasional replacement for oft-injured receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. It also suggests him as a dark horse candidate for the Black Mamba role in Chip Kelly’s offense. (Recently Kelly explained that DeSean Jackson didn’t have the rushing ability to be used in that fashion.) My guess would be that De’Anthony Thomas is a better pure athlete than any of the above players, but he was less efficient on a per play basis in 2012 than Johnson was in his final year at Tulsa.
The numbers for Mike Thomas represent his most productive junior season, but his career rushing numbers total 45 carries, 395 yards, and an 8.8 yard average. The only difference between Thomas and Austin is the frequency with which they touched the ball. Thomas was an intriguing player his first two years in Jacksonville, and even figured prominently in my first Possession Receiver Breakout Study. He became marginalized during the Blaine Gabbert Fiasco, but was recently guaranteed at least $1 million by the Lions despite making no impact after they acquired him at the 2012 trade deadline.
Those who believe Austin’s usage as a runner automatically puts him in a different category may dismiss Wright and the SS, but it’s probably their ability to actually stretch a defense that’s the difference-maker. While neither exploded on the scene in the same fashion as T.Y. Hilton, both put up elite numbers in Pro Football Focus’s yards per route metric in limited opportunities. In looking at these four players, I think there are three possible conclusions. 1) Tavon Austin is vastly overrated. 2) Johnson, Wright, and the SS are vastly underrated. 3) The values of these players will converge slightly, with the caveat that the team which drafts Austin will be highly incentivized to force him the ball (even if the efficiency returns are negative).
There is one other possible conclusion. Austin is purely a possession receiver while the others are vertical receivers. Austin’s lack of vertical ability may actually play to his advantage and push him into a more valuable fantasy football role. Vertical receivers are relatively weak plays in fantasy because their production is highly inconsistent and potentially unsustainable (just ask Denarius Moore and Torrey Smith owners). That’s the reason why I would give the nod to the Heyward-Bey argument over the T.Y. Hilton Superstar perspective.
Regardless, I think an arbitrage opportunity exists in ultra-deep fantasy leagues. I’ve built my PFF Dynasty roster around big receivers – Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Hakeem Nicks, Andre Johnson, Kenny Britt – but I also own Damaris Johnson and recently acquired Wright and the SS as throwaway pieces in a larger trade. In all likelihood, I’ll have to cut all three players for roster space before I ever find out if they can pay off on their potential, but I’d still take any of them at a minimal cost over spending a first round rookie selection on Tavon Austin.