But for those of us who considered Austin maybe the most attractive prospect in April’s draft, it’s still welcome. Austin’s preseason output has consisted of just five catches for 40 yards. He returned a punt 81 yards, but aside from that, his August has been rather quiet. With both that and Fisher’s comments in mind, we just wanted to remind everyone (and especially everyone with a fantasy draft this weekend) about Tavon Austin’s final year at West Virginia — just in case you might’ve forgotten.
This piece from Grantland repeats a common theme that there is something transformative about Tavon Austin’s ability. I don’t want to risk overstating my case here, so let me stipulate that he can run, he can catch and he seems able to return kicks and punts. But there are lots of players in the NFL that can do all of these things. Austin is one player that can do all of them, but having one player be able to do something instead of relying on multiple roster spots for these skills seems like only a minor advantage if it’s an advantage at all. Versatility is in general wildly overrated.
Aaron Hernandez was capable of catching the ball and also taking handoffs out of the backfield. But of the Pats success over the past three years, how much was related to Hernandez’s versatility and how much was related to the fact that defenses were not capable of stopping Rob Gronkowski from scoring touchdowns?
Percy Harvin is also a very versatile player and is apparently electric with the ball in his hands. But for all of that electricity, he sports an 8 yards/target average over the last three years which isn’t an all-world number. Jeremy Maclin has averaged slightly more yards/target. You might point to Harvin’s QB situation as being partly responsible, but if in order to get a guy the ball you have to throw it to him behind the line of scrimmage, the QB will have negligible impact. The mentality that you just get a guy the ball and then let him make things happen will probably bake in the results that we’ve seen from Harvin. The player is likely to be long on highlight plays and yet short on touchdowns at the same time. The fact that Harvin’s yards/target and yards/reception (11.8 for his career) are so close underlines the idea that for all of the highlight plays, he has actually had a low ceiling on a per play basis – although that shouldn’t be taken to mean that I can’t see that he’s been very valuable in the return game.
Darren Sproles is another very versatile player and the Saints offense has been very good with Sproles over the past two years. But that offense was also #1 in the NFL in scoring in 2008 and 2009 when Sproles was still a Charger. I’m sure Sproles is responsible for some amount of the success of the offense, although the actual scheme and receivers are probably also a principal component of the success in NO (oh, and a guy named Brees could probably get some of the credit).
If the Rams mix in Tavon Austin as one of the parts of their offense I’m sure it can’t hurt. But if he’s taking handoffs out of the backfield it’s not like he’s going to take 10 per game, so the impact of doing that will necessarily be limited by the number of times it’s tried. If he’s catching passes that’s fine too, although in general electric ability in the passing game is overrated while player size and route running ability are underrated. An offense will be better with a complement of red zone beasts than it will with a group of waterbug receivers (last year the top offenses in the league were NE, DEN, and NO and all had either very large receivers or tight ends to rely on in the red zone – it’s true that they all had good QBs too but even then note that Peyton Manning had essentially his best season since 2004 even while it was clear that his arm strength was diminished – big receivers are important).
There’s also probably an idea that Austin’s mere presence on the field and ability to create mismatches will be valuable. But again, why is it the case that these versatile players that create the mismatches are never the ones leading the league in touchdowns? Presumably every play that they’re on the field it’s impossible for a defense to properly account for them right? And yet the results probably point to that idea not being true.
There is one final point that I’d like to make here and it’s related to the perception that fantasy players overrate guys that score fantasy points but aren’t good football players. I think that’s horseshit. First, I would challenge anyone who believes that to produce the name of a player that fantasy players think is good while real football people think that player isn’t good. Second, Tavon Austin is likely to be an example of a player that real football people and fantasy football people agree is good, and yet his value to an offense is likely to be misunderstood by both. Austin is likely to score fantasy points just based on his team wanting him to touch the ball (especially in PPR leagues) and real football people will ooh and ahhh at his ability. Yet I suspect that most of the value of the Rams offense is likely to come from Chris Givens and Jared Cook. If at the end of the year Givens and Cook aren’t responsible for the majority of the scoring in the Rams offense (even while Austin leads the league in highlight plays) I’ll be surprised. And if Austin does end up accounting for some oversized amount of the Rams offense, then my guess is that it’s because the Rams end up using him as a deep threat and not by getting the ball in his hands behind the line of scrimmage. That is to say that if Austin scores a lot of points this year, I think it will be due to his 4.35 speed and not because of his versatility.