NFL Draft 2013: DeAndre Hopkins and Tavon Austin Offer St. Louis Rams Different Directions
In three days, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will step towards the podium at Radio City Music Hall in New York to announce that the St. Louis Rams will draft….
And that is where the story ends for now.
The Rams have two picks in the first round, but maybe surprisingly to some, their first doesn’t come until 16th overall. Jeff Fisher quickly flipped the Rams around to relevance in his first season, despite playing in the toughest division in football, largely because he was able to find impact rookies during last year’s draft. This year the Rams are searching for another handful of playmakers to help on both sides of the ball, most importantly on the offensive side.
Picking 16th and 22nd overall affords the Rams major flexibility and offers them many avenues to explore. After locking up Jake Long and Jared Cook in free agency, the Rams don’t have to force their hand in any direction and can make moves based on want rather than need. A perfect class for the Rams would bring them a starting safety, starting guard and starting wide receiver. Both the safety and wide receiver positions are notably deep, while there are only two top guards that teams are fighting over.
The Rams could trade up or down, but the likeliest move appears to be to sit where they are and take either a top safety with a wide receiver or a top guard with a wide receiver. Even though we don’t know the names yet, it’s all but certain that more than one of the top wide receivers will be available at both 16th and 22nd overall.
Taking into account the thoughts of esteemed draft analyst Sigmund Bloom on Austin and on Hopkins, it’s easy to see why both players are so highly sought after, but it’s also easy to see how both players bring very different skill-sets to the professional level. Making a decision between the two is not about deciding who is the better player, but deciding who is the better fit in your offense.
For the Rams, that is a difficult decision.
The Rams’ current setup
The addition of Jake Long means that Sam Bradford finally has a worthwhile offensive line that can give him time in the pocket. A starting left guard is desirable, but also attainable, and a good one could turn the line from worthwhile to a base strength. A fully healthy Long, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Rodger Saffold is a stronger unit than the Rams have had for some time.
With that in mind, the Rams’ play-book should open up. Bradford has a strong arm to throw the deep ball and the receivers outside to go deep. He hasn’t had the pass protection to allow him to make those throws throughout his career. Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Jared Cook and even Lance Kendricks can all be considered vertical threats at the very least. Much of the Rams’ deep passing came off of play-action last year.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sam Bradford averaged 8.5 yards per attempt off of play-action last year, compared to just 6.2 on non-play-action passes. He used play-action on over 20% of his drop-backs, good enough for 11th in the league. That is no surprise considering the state of his offensive line and the construction of the offense that focused primarily on Jackson’s ability to run between the tackles.
Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead can run between the tackles, but it is not their specialty and they won’t need 20 carries per game to be effective. Richardson and Pead are smaller backs who should offer more coming out of the backfield and in screen situations. Jackson wasn’t necessarily a bad receiving option, but it wasn’t his primary focus for the Rams.
With Jackson gone, the offense should dramatically change. The Rams now have two offensive tackles who are very much pass-blocking specialists, two receiving running-backs, a mismatch tight-end and at least one viable deep threat at wide receiver. What the Rams are lacking is a possession receiver.
A possession receiver is a relatively vague term. It is often confused for a slot receiver but that is not an accurate interpretation. Roddy White, Reggie Wayne and Anquan Boldin, amongst others, can be considered possession receivers even though they regularly line up on the outside of formations. The best receiver in the league, Calvin Johnson, lines up inside to clear the defense out running deep, that doesn’t make him a possession receiver though.
A possession receiver is someone who can run most, if not all, routes and consistently catch the ball in different situations to keep drives alive. Over the past few years, Danny Amendola has carried out that role for the Rams. Amendola didn’t exclusively line up in the slot however, he consistently moved around the offense. Because of his loss, the Rams are in the market for a possession wide receiver rather than a slot receiver.
Jared Cook was signed this off-season to add a new dimension to the offense. As a tight end, it’s natural to expect Cook to carry some of the load left from Amendola, but Cook isn’t really a tight end rather than a glorified receiver in a tight end’s body. Although he was very underused in Tennessee with the Titans, Cook still averaged over 13.1 yards per reception and has dropped 11 passes on 198 targets. Comparatively, Amendola dropped 11 passes on 276 targets during his career with the Rams.
Cook is a mismatch problem for defenses and a very athletic big play talent, but he doesn’t necessarily fit as a possession receiver that Bradford can rely on. With Brian Quick developing slowly and Austin Pettis showing very little to this point in his career, the Rams are essentially left with just Chris Givens and Cook as legitimate receiving threats. Givens has a lot of potential, but for now is much more of a field-stretcher than an all-around receiver. Only 15 of Givens’ 42 receptions came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage last year.
With Givens and Cook stretching the field, the Rams need to find someone who can consistently win on intermediate and shorter routes in situational football. Even if they draft someone such as Eddie Lacy or LeVeon Bell later in the draft to be a short-yardage back, the likelihood is that there will be a notable drop-off when running the ball on third and short without Steven Jackson. Instead, stretching the field horizontally and putting their dynamic receivers and backs in space seems to be the direction their offense is heading in.
The draft represents a break in the road for the Rams’ offense. General Manager Les Snead is expected to select a wide receiver in the first round, and all inclinations point to that receiver being one of Tavon Austin or DeAndre Hopkins.
The Direction of Tavon Austin:
Austin is one of those ‘wide’ receivers who perpetrates the stereotype of the slot receiver being a possession receiver. However, calling Austin a possession receiver doesn’t do him justice because of his size. It’s easy to see his very slight frame, 5’8 175 lbs, and throw him in with Wes Welker and Amendola as just another typical undersized inside receiver. However, if that was the case he wouldn’t be touted as one of the top picks in this draft.
According to Sigmund Bloom’s report, “No one in this class is better at making tacklers miss in the open field, and Austin also has speed to outrun the fastest player on most NFL defenses…He’s limited to being a slot receiver in the NFL, and physical coverage could cancel him out. He seems to hear footsteps when he works the middle of the field.” This says that Austin is a very different type of player to Amendola and not necessarily in the mold of the possession receiver that the Rams desire.
However, his sheer talent is so overwhelming that the Rams would be delighted to plug him into their offense, while a professional weight program and nutritional guide could go a long way to ridding him of those “footsteps” he hears over the middle. Austin may never move outside, but he has the potential to be an all-around slot receiver who’s ability to score from any point on the field will overshadow any short-term limitations he has within the Rams’ offense as a possession receiver.
If the Rams draft Austin, they wouldn’t have one specific go-to-guy when faced with specific passing situations. Instead, the responsibility would be spread through the backs, tight-ends and receivers on the field at the time. Much like the New Orleans Saints do, the Rams would want to spread the ball around the field and turn Bradford into an equal opportunity passer.
The real downside of Austin is the lack of flexibility the Rams would have in terms of formations. As Bloom points out, he’s limited to being a slot receiver to take him away from the physical press coverage. Of course, he can develop his release to the point that that becomes less of an issue, a la Wes Welker, but it would be an unrealistic prediction at this point.
This kind of formation should become a regular staple of the Rams’ offense this coming season. Sam Bradford is in the shotgun with a running-back to his right, Brian Quick is to the top of the screen, Austin Pettis is at the bottom with Danny Amendola in the slot. Lance Kendricks is inside Amendola in a tight end position.
If the Rams draft Austin, then every time they use a three-man receiver personnel group, they will have to line Austin up inside their other receivers unless they put all three together to one side of the field. That may seem like an insignificant limitation, but it comes into play when the defense looks to line up across from each receiver.
Many teams in the league today use nickel defenders who are specialists to play inside. A William Gay in Pittsburgh or Robert McClain in Atlanta is the type of player who is comfortable when lined up closer to the line of scrimmage with safety help around them. However, when forced to play in space on the edge, they typically struggle as the routes vary and approach from the offense changes. Conversely, a majority of outside cornerbacks don’t like moving inside because they don’t have the agility to stick with quicker receivers without the help of the sideline.
With Austin in the offense, the Rams would be forced to put Jared Cook out wide or play Brian Quick. Cook has proven he can play inside and is a tougher matchup for defenses when he plays against nickel cornerbacks, linebacker or safeties. On the outside, it’s easier to put a starting cornerback on him and treat him as an outside receiver. If the Rams wanted to gain that matchup advantage in this personnel grouping, they would need to take Austin off the field or move him to running back, where he almost definitely won’t be able to be a pass-blocker.
Although he will be a very unpredictable player, Austin brings that element of predictability to the Rams with his limitations before the snap.
The Direction of DeAndre Hopkins:
Offering a combination of excellent technique, awareness, sheer talent and flexibility, it’s very easy to see why DeAndre Hopkins is one of the most attractive prospects in this draft. Hopkins played across from college superstar Sammy Watkins in college with one of the better quarterbacks in college, Tahj Boyd, with Clemson. However, they definitely benefited as much from his play on the field as he did theirs.
Hopkins has a big, athletic frame standing at 6-1 and 205 lbs. Yet, his agility, route running and ball skills are other worldly at times. Hopkins can beat defensive backs in a variety of ways and understands how to consistently use his abilities according to Bloom, “He creates separation by subtly changing speeds and generally keeps cornerbacks off balance for the entire game.” The only real knock on Hopkins is what makes Austin so special, “Hopkins lacks the jets and phone booth quicks to be a real threat to break long plays after the catch and he won’t take the top off of [the] defense.”
Hopkins isn’t a typical slot receiver, but he is exactly the type of player you want to be targeting on key conversion attempts during drives. He is the exact prototype for a possession receiver because he is intelligent and can lose defenders with slight movements in different situations. He naturally catches the ball, but does suffer somewhat over the middle.
He is at his very best catching the ball away from his body and would likely be a star on the outside for any offense, but with the Rams he would get a unique opportunity to become somewhat of a chess piece in an offense that is crying out for his skill-set.
Unlike Austin, who limits where the Rams can line up the rest of their receiving options, Hopkins would immediately become an outside starter in two-wide receiver groupings and provides the team with a slot options in three-wide receiver groupings. A receiver who can combine decent agility and speed with outstanding ball-skills and route running makes for a matchup nightmare. Hopkins’ style is rare because he doesn’t have any real obvious weaknesses.
Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter may be better vertical threats, and Tavon Austin may be more electric, but nobody is going to bring in as much variety and consistency as Hopkins will.
The Rams would be sacrificing the big-play ability for consistency and reliability. In today’s high-scoring NFL, the consistent-reliable types are often overlooked. However, they are as crucial as any other type of skill-position. Stretching defenses in different directions and as far as you can is the best way to put points on the board. Look at the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. The Saints and Falcons both have explosive pieces, but a Tony Gonzalez and a Lance Moore is just as important to keeping them ticking over as a Julio Jones and Jimmy Graham is.
Hopkins may not excite fans but he really should. In multiple receiver sets he will allow the Rams to move Jared Cook around, make use of Isaiah Pead in the slot, potentially shift Chris Givens inside to carry out the Calvin Johnson effect at slot receiver(with the speed if not the size) and pick and choose when Brian Quick sees the field. Not to mention, being that Jeff Fisher is typically committed to running the football, he offers a much greater presence as a run-blocker than Tavon Austin, who would be a liability.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf