Recovering Tavon Austin facing uncertain Rams role

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Tavon Austin's progress has been measured by what he is able to catch.

"I graduated from a tennis ball to a Nerf ball," he said, smiling. "I’m hanging in there.”

Austin is five weeks into his recovery from surgery on his left wrist and won't be a full participant in practice until the Los Angeles Rams begin training camp in late July. The speedy, diminutive fifth-year receiver spent the offseason program working out on his own, running routes and preserving his hand-eye coordination without putting pressure on his tender wrist. He began by catching tennis balls, then progressed to foam footballs while the rest of his teammates participated in 11-on-11 drills.

The Rams want Austin to establish himself as more of a deep threat, because Sean McVay's offense has a desperate need for somebody who can take the top off a defense and beat teams vertically.

"I definitely love the plans they’ve got for me," Austin said Wednesday after what became the Rams' final minicamp practice. "I just gotta come in and execute it now, however they’re going to use me."

Austin stressed that he wants to continue to return punts, a decision that might ultimately come down to him or Pharoh Cooper, but that he doesn't necessarily care how he is used as a receiver.

"I’m just the type of guy who wants the ball in my hands any type of way," Austin said. "It might be vertically, or jet sweeps, screens, it doesn’t really matter to me. I just want the ball in my hands any way I can get it. I’m just taking that in. Whatever he prepared for me, I definitely will be ready."

But has the offense already moved on without him?

Over the past two years, the Rams have drafted seven receivers and tight ends. They brought in an entirely new coaching staff, and they allocated more than $30 million for a free-agent receiver in Robert Woods. Austin was given a four-year, $42 million extension weeks before the start of the 2016 season. But there is only $5 million in dead money tied to his contract after this year, which means they can easily part ways with Austin if he doesn't fit McVay's scheme.

The Rams won't really know that until the 26-year-old gets on the field.

"He’s done a lot of great things on tape," McVay said, "but until you’re actually able to get out on the grass with him and watch him do some of the things that we’re asking him to do, it does make it a little bit more difficult. But we’re certainly projecting him to be a big part of our offense. How exactly we use him is to be determined."

The Rams were scheduled to host a third and final minicamp practice Thursday morning, but they canceled that, mainly, they say, as a reward to the players for their hard work. They will reconvene next month at UC Irvine in Orange County, roughly 90 miles south of Cal Lutheran University, site of the Rams' regular-season facility. Rookies will report July 26, veterans follow July 28 and the first practice will take place July 29, at which point Austin should finally be wearing a helmet.

Austin is considered the Rams' primary receiver, but he has never really produced like one. The No. 8 overall pick of the 2013 draft gained a career-high 907 yards from scrimmage in 2015, but that number fell to 668 the following season. He caught 58 passes in 2016, tied for 60th in the NFL, and it represented a career high.

Under Jeff Fisher, Austin was used as something of a gadget receiver. He returned punts, made 75 of his 181 catches behind the line of scrimmage (tied for second in the NFL in 2013-16) and carried the ball 125 times (by far the most among receivers over the past four seasons). Austin has made only 15 career catches on passes that have traveled at least 15 yards through the air, a total surpassed by 125 players over the past four seasons. His reception percentage on those deep balls is 28.8, 13.7 percentage points below the league average from 2013-16.

Austin's size, 5-foot-8, makes it difficult for him to be a downfield threat, but first-year offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur sees his speed as a major weapon.

"And if you look at what this offense is predicated on, we need guys that have speed to help create some of these explosive plays that we want to try to manufacture in the pass game," LaFleur said. "So we’re excited to get him back into the fold. I think he’s done a great job paying attention. While not being able to get the physical reps, he’s been getting the mental reps. Also, he’s been very engaged in our meetings. We can’t wait to get him out here in training camp."

Given full health, Woods looks the favorite to finish the season as the Rams' leader in receptions. Around him during the offseason program, Cooper Kupp, Nelson Spruce, Josh Reynolds, Mike Thomas and Cooper have rotated through reps with the first-team offense, with Reynolds and Thomas acting as the main deep threats.

Eventually that could be Austin, but nobody is really sure right now.

"At the end of the day, it’ll all play itself out," he said. "If I’m in, I’m in. If I’m not, I’m not. That’s how it goes. I definitely can’t take away nothing that these guys have been doing these last OTAs and minicamp, because they’ve been ballin’. For the most part, it ain’t really about me. If I’m in the rotation, I’m in the rotation. If I’m not, I still will support the guys like I am in the rotation. But when I do get my turn, I definitely will make the best of it."