EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Two years into a thus-far disappointing NFL career, St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin has heard the whispers. For Austin, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, one word rises above the rest: bust.
Entering his third season, Austin says he has made it a point to block out what others have to say but he hasn't been able to completely avoid the criticism. It's part of why Austin views this season as critically important to his NFL future.
"I think it’s real big to be honest just because of how the media say I’m a bust and all of that stuff," Austin said. "I really don’t pay too much attention to it but I know one thing about it is when I’m focused, I’m focused. It’s going to be a different story this year and we’ll see what happens when we get to the end of the year."
For both Austin and the Rams' sake, the hope is that in 2015 Austin will drastically change the narrative of his career to this point. When the Rams traded up to take him at No. 8, they envisioned him becoming the type of dangerous Swiss Army Knife capable of dissecting opponents as a receiver, running back and punt returner.
As it's turned out, the bulk of Austin's production has mainly come as a returner, which makes trading up and spending the No. 8 overall pick a costly proposition for a special-teamer. As a receiver, Austin has 71 catches for 660 yards and four touchdowns in his first two seasons. Those numbers dipped to 31 receptions for 242 yards and zero touchdowns last season.
In the meantime, the Rams converted Austin into more of a running back under then offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. He had 36 carries for 224 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in 2014, though Schottenheimer's insistence on running him between the tackles on a consistent basis left many scratching their heads.
Which is why some view Schottenheimer's departure and the subsequent promotion of Frank Cignetti Jr. to coordinator as a glimmer of hope that Austin can deliver on his pre-draft promise.
Cignetti said Tuesday that Austin looks poised for a breakthrough.
“Tavon Austin’s had a great offseason," Cignetti said. "Tremendous. It starts in the classroom. He’s learning, he’s paying attention. He’s bringing it to the practice field. You can just see it from his route running. What a difference. His effort, his attention to details. Every day out here, the guy’s made plays. Tavon’s had a great offseason and he’ll continue that into training camp.”
In a Rams offense that figures to be power-run heavy, the obvious question is where Austin fits into the scheme.
Skeptics might say that a 5-foot-8, 176-pound receiver in a run-heavy offense is the football equivalent of forcing a square peg in a round hole. Optimists might view Austin as the ideal complement to that offensive approach, capable of taking jet sweeps and short passes the distance to give the offense another look.
Cignetti wants to get Austin back to basics.
“Tavon Austin’s a wide receiver," Cignetti said. "I wouldn’t say he’s a change-of-pace guy. He’s a guy you can put out there every down and the defense has to recognize, ‘Hey, Tavon’s on the field.’ So, whether it’s running down-the-field routes, intermediate routes, short routes or manipulating his touches, the defense always has to be aware of where is Tavon Austin.”
Austin's lack of production to this point doesn't solely fall on lack of creativity, either. By his own admission, he's struggled to pick up the playbook and the nuances of route running. During organized team activities, Austin has been sharper than in the past, showing a newfound knack for making plays in traffic. Of course, he's flashed in practice in the past and it hasn't translated to the field.
Much like the rest of the offense, the proof will be in the production.
"Coach Cignetti has got a good scheme, good plan for me, going to try to get the ball in my hands as much as possible," Austin said. "But in this league, you have got to be patient. Even if it comes to me blocking somebody or catching a deep ball, I’m definitely up for the challenge and hopefully I can touch the ball a little more this year."