Allow me to preface this by saying that I am all about value. Getting the most out of a first-round pick makes a ton of sense from the perspective of the St. Louis Rams. And Tavon Austin is an insanely gifted athlete who should get the ball in his hands as many times as possible this season.
But not when guys get a 50-yard running start at him.
Now obviously the league has tried to basically nullify kickoffs to the point that they are irrelevant for the most part (aside from the occasional onside attempt), but punts are a different story. Guys get lit up all the time returning punts as the guy back there is pretty much on an island all by himself as a sitting duck until the ball arrives. That’s why the latest idea for the Rams to use Austin as a kickoff and punt returner this season sickens me.
The potential is just oozing out of this 5-foot-8 174-pound lightning bug of a football player. Austin could be used as a wide out, a slot guy, lined up in the backfield, in motion, or even running the ball and it wouldn’t bother me a bit. Clearly he’s an experienced return man from his days at West Virginia University, but we ain’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
While the college game has infiltrated the pro game in many respects, the quality of athlete is still the best of the best from the collegiate ranks. Even the Jacksonville Jaguars on their worst day could slaughter the back-to-back national champion Alabama Crimson Tide on their best. To make a long story short, as dynamic as Austin is sure to be with the Rams in year one, one hit could change all of that.
Certainly there is another side to this argument which is to think of the potential damage Austin could do following a defensive stop. If the opposing team is backed up and forced to punt the ball away, any number of mistakes could occur just from the fear of having to kick to such a frightening return man. Tackling him in the open field would be quite a task, finding him behind a gang of blockers would be even more difficult, and actually get a solid hit on him may be impossible.
Jeff Fisher is a terrific coach and has vowed to use his latest weapon in a variety of ways in 2013, but his final decision should exclude using him as a return man. The risk simply outweighs the reward when the franchise has invested so heavily in this potential game-changer, especially in his rookie season.