On Friday morning, the Rams worked out a trade with the Buffalo Bills to make Sammy Watkins their new vertical threat on the outside, a role Austin previously was supposed to fill. Watkins and former Bills teammate Robert Woods will be the Rams’ primary receivers. Their slot receiver is Cooper Kupp, a rookie out of Eastern Washington who already looks to have solidified a role.
But the Rams stress that they’ll find a place for Austin.
“Tavon is a fast kid,” Snead said at a charity luncheon in downtown Los Angeles. “Jimmy Johnson probably said it best, long before I was in football: Speed is important. So having fast people on your team, you never have too many of those.”
Austin signed a four-year, $42 million extension weeks before the start of the 2016 season. But he gained only 668 yards from scrimmage that year, which actually represented his second-highest total in four seasons. The Rams then brought in a new head coach (Sean McVay), signed one primary receiver (Woods) and traded for another (Watkins). They also have selected seven wide receivers and tight ends in the past two drafts.
Austin, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to get on the field.
Wrist surgery in the spring made him a spectator while the Rams went about their offseason program. The 26-year-old was a full participant at the start of training camp, but a hamstring injury has kept him out of practice for the past 11 days. And it’s hard to envision his role once he returns.
Austin always has made an impact on punt returns, but he has hardly ever been an ideal fit on offense. His blazing speed screams vertical threat, but his height (5-foot-8) does not. Former Rams coach Jeff Fisher used Austin mostly as a gadget receiver the past four seasons. He made 75 of his 181 catches behind the line of scrimmage and carried the ball 125 times out of the backfield. His best season was 2015, when he gained 907 yards from scrimmage. But unless Austin supplants Kupp as the slot receiver — seemingly unlikely — it’s hard to see him getting the snaps to produce like that again.
He still can return punts, be on the field on four-receiver sets and perhaps even emerge as an option out of the backfield, but his role won’t match his pay.
Austin will cost the Rams close to $15 million toward the salary cap this season, after which the Rams can cut ties with him and absorb only $5 million toward the cap. That’s why this was going to be an important season for Austin, and why it now seems his days with the Rams are numbered.
But Snead said he still sees Austin as an effective player when he gets the ball in space — and having more weapons theoretically will allow him to get the ball in space more often.
“It’s we, not me,” Snead said, echoing McVay’s rallying cry for this team. “It’s not just one player; it’s not just one star. It’s a group. I would love to have a Gonzaga basketball team, where everybody complements each other. Some days it’s one person, some days it’s another. The sum of the parts is better than the individual.”