Rams want Tavon Austin to play DeSean Jackson role in new offense

Tavon Austin may be used less as a punt returner and more as a deep threat this season under new coach Sean McVay. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Rams are operating under the expectation that Tavon Austin will be ready by training camp. The fifth-year receiver recently underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair ligament damage in his left wrist, a procedure that will sideline him for organized team activities but should have him healthy and ready by late July.

The Rams are hoping he returns as a slightly different player.

Under former coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams used Austin, the eighth overall pick in 2013, 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 over the last four years) and carried the ball 125 times (by far the most among receivers during that stretch). But the Rams aren't yet certain if Austin will continue to return punts. And first-year coach Sean McVay wants Austin, 5-foot-8 with breakneck speed, to establish himself as more of a deep threat, perhaps similar to what DeSean Jackson was for McVay's offense in Washington.

Is Austin capable?

"He’s shown he can track the ball down the field," McVay said from the Rams' rookie minicamp on Friday. "Really, as far as establishing him as a deep threat, I think we’re just looking for all our receivers to be complete. You want to be able to have a short, intermediate and deep route tree. And I think it gives you a little bit more route versatility so people can’t squat on you. You certainly want to be cognizant of accentuating guys’ skill set, but also not being regulated in terms of, 'This is what they do.' That’s the thing that he’s really embraced, and we’re looking to do that with Tavon."

Aside from 2017 fourth-round pick Josh Reynolds, who's still very raw, and 2016 sixth-round pick Mike Thomas, an outside candidate to even crack the 53-man roster, the Rams don't really have someone who specializes in lining up on the outside and beating defenses over the top.

McVay brought up a couple of long touchdown strikes from last season, against the Buccaneers in Week 3 and against the Saints in Week 12, as examples that Austin can make plays down the field. But the 26-year-old 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 last four years. His reception percentage on those deep balls is 28.8, 13.7 percentage points below the league average from 2013 to '16.

One major disadvantage is obvious -- Austin's height, which makes it exceedingly difficult for him to make deep catches without significant separation.

But Jackson is only two inches taller, at 5-foot-10. And with the Falcons last year, new Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur had the explosive, 5-foot-8 Taylor Gabriel. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Julio Jones operated as Atlanta's primary deep threat, but LaFleur believes short receivers can do the same as long as they "have the speed to get open" and the "separation skills to get open," which the Rams believe Austin possesses in abundance.

"He's got great hands," LaFleur added. "When we judge receivers, it's more about their ability to separate. The size is not as big of a concern."

Austin signed a four-year, $42 million extension weeks before the start of the 2016 season. But the dead money tied to his contract drops from nearly $20 million in 2017 to $5 million in 2018 to zero thereafter, which makes it seem like he is basically on a one-year tryout with this new coaching staff.

The Rams -- special-teams coordinator John Fassel specifically -- are also open-minded about whether Austin will continue to return punts. He has served as the Rams' primary punt returner since his rookie year, returning three of them for touchdowns. But Pharoh Cooper, a fourth-round pick last year, will also get consideration for the role. And others may emerge as candidates.

"Any time you’ve got a guy like that who can create with the ball in his hands, you want to be able to create those opportunities," McVay said of Austin. "But I know there’s other players in place that can do that, as well."