How will the Rams use wide receiver Tavon Austin in head coach Sean McVay's new offense?
That was one of the consistent questions during Los Angeles' recently completed offseason program. And even after minicamp there is no clear answer.
Though Austin was around for all three phases and practiced during the club's voluntary minicamp at the end of April, he was unable to participate for Phase II and III after undergoing wrist surgery. Under the guidance of head athletic trainer Reggie Scott, the wideout nevertheless remained active — running routes on the sidelines and catching tennis balls instead of footballs from head strength and conditioning coach Ted Rath.
"I'm just still taking it day-by-day, trying to get better with Reggie and the training staff. I would say I've graduated from tennis balls to a Nerf ball," Austin said with a laugh at last week's minicamp. "So, I'm hanging in there."
"I think he's done a good job of controlling what he can control and that's working and doing as much as he could with the limitations that he had with the wrist," McVay said, complimenting Austin's attentiveness in meetings. "Then, when you get to those physical reps, [the sooner] he's able to — with Reggie and the training staff — catch footballs from a quarterback and do some of those things that you're going to do, the better."
Austin, who recorded 668 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns in 2016, said he wasn't sure when the injury to his wrist occurred — whether it was something that happened on a specific play or the result of built up wear and tear. Either way, it's been frustrating for him to not be fully involved for the latter stages of Los Angeles' offseason.
"People who always knew me how long I've been with the Rams, you can just tell. You can tell when I'm on the sideline. I still run my routes — I'm still getting my routes in with the boys when I try to watch them towards the end [of the field]," Austin said. "So it's definitely frustrating, just because I don't know what happened to my wrist in the first place."
The surgery has also prevented Austin from displaying his ability in person for McVay and the new coaching staff — a fact that has only added to the wideout's dissatisfaction.
"He's seen me on tape, but for the most part, I only played in the offense for three days," Austin said, referring to the Rams' voluntary minicamp in April. "Everybody else got a lot more reps than me. So now I'm just taking it mentally in. I would love to do the physical part, but I can't right now. But it's all good. Hopefully when camp starts, I'm definitely back in that rotation."
Austin is currently slated to be full go for the start of training camp on July 29. And when that happens, he'll be inserted into an offense that will likely look to take advantage of his speed.
"Well, the one thing that everybody knows is that he can run," offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur said. "One thing that this offense is predicated on [is] we need guys that have speed to help create some of these explosive plays that we want to try to manufacture in the pass game, especially off our play-action and keepers. We're excited to have him back into the fold."
"I think we have ideas of the way that we want to utilize him," McVay said. "I think he's done a lot of great things on tape, but until you're actually able to get out on the grass with him, watch him do some of the things that we're asking him to do, it does make it a little bit more difficult. But, we're certainly projecting him to be a big part of our offense."
Having been in the meeting room for the last few months, Austin has a sense for the way he may be used in 2017. And he was enthusiastic when discussing the prospects, bringing up 2016 Washington receivers Jamison Crowder and DeSean Jackson.
"I definitely love the plans they've got for me. Just have to come in and execute it now," Austin said. "However they're going to use me — if they're going to use me like the old DeSean or the old Crowder — I'm definitely up for the challenge."
And so because Austin knows he has some ground to make up once camp begins next month, he's not going down to Irvine with any preconceived notions of his status within the Rams' wide receiver rotation.
"At the end of the day, it'll all play itself out. If I am, I am. If I'm not, I'm not. And that's how it goes," Austin said. "I definitely can't take away nothing that these guys have been doing, these last OTAs and minicamp, because they've been balling. So for the most part, it's not really about me.
"If I'm in the rotation, I'm in the rotation. If I'm not, then, well, I'll still support the guys like I am in the rotation. But when I do get my turn, I definitely will make the best of it."