With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#12: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
We continue this year's series with West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin, who may just be the most exciting and explosive player in this draft class. He's certainly been one of the most productive over the last couple of seasons, especially in 2012. Last year, he caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns, added 643 yards and seven touchdowns on 72 rushing attempts, returned 32 kicks for 813 yards and a touchdown, and returned 15 punts for 165 yards and another touchdown, just for good measure.
His 1,932 yards from scrimmage ranked first in the Big 12 and ninth in the nation, but Austin's NFL potential is about more than just stats. In an NFL that welcomes elite positional versatility more than ever, Austin hit his peak and is ready for the pros at precisely the right time. That was never more evident than his Nov. 17 game against Oklahoma, when he put up 572 total yards -- including 344 yards on 21 carries -- to prove that when he's put in place to succeed as a moveable chess piece, he's almost impossible to stop on a consistent basis.
Pros: Has rare on-field speed and agility that allows him to do some pretty epic damage from a number of positions. Austin is quick enough to break away from chasing defenders even when they're moving in a straight line and he's heading at an angle. Could be the most devastating Pistol running back ever because his lack of height works to his extreme advantage -- defenses lose Austin's first step while they're picking him up, and one step is all Austin needs.
Possesses amazing straight-line speed, but it's his lateral agility and quickness that makes him so tough to stop. Whether at the line or in space, he can cut on a dime and leave defenders in his dust. Puts his foot in the ground at full speed and drives his body away from contact. Has some ability to move through contact for his size,. though this is not a primary asset. Very durable for his size -- never missed a game in high school or college. Understands how to break contact by spinning out of hits and running out of bounds.
As a receiver, returner, and running back, has good patience as the start of a play -- presumably because he knows he can blast off at any time. Doesn't yet run a complete route tree, but doesn't really need to -- can create his own gains after the catch on quick routes, bubble screens, and end-arounds. Ran an official 4.34 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, as if there was any doubt.
Cons: Has probably topped out from a size perspective, because he's already pretty decently muscled and any more mass could affect his speed and make him average. Not a pure running back per se -- this is more an adjunct skill, because he tends to go east-west too often and doesn't have the body mass to break out of tackles. Boom-or-bust player to a point; if he runs into too many brick walls, his athleticism might be negated. Will face more multiple defenses in the NFL; many college opponents of West Virginia's high-flying offense played on their heels and just tried to hold on. Needs a coaching staff that understands his total positional value.
Conclusion: There are two fairly common perceptions when it comes to Tavon Austin's NFL prospects, and I think both might be egregious when you consider how the league has changed. Some believe that Austin will max out because he doesn't play one specific position, and others think that his size will limit his potential. But when the Seattle Seahawks traded a first-round draft pick for former Minnesota Vikings receiver Percy Harvin and gave him a six-year, $67 million contract in March, it forwarded what the Vikings knew with Harvin, what the Green Bay Packers have developed with Randall Cobb, and what the New England Patriots have done with Aaron Hernandez. More and more, players who can win battles in multiple spaces are providing optimal value, and Austin may wind up as the next-level example of this process. If he's half as dynamic and explosive as he was in college, he's going to make some offensive coordinator very, very happy. Especially if that offensive coordinator runs the Pistol -- well, if you're a defensive coordinator, watch the Oklahoma game and see if you don't get nightmares.