THE STAR ON THE SIDE OF MILES AUSTIN'S HELMET IS ONLY THERE TO IDENTIFY WHERE HE BELONGS, NOT WHO HE IS. IT WOULD BE EASY FOR AN UNDRAFTED free agent turned Pro Bowl receiver for America's Team to have gotten big-headed from the recognition that comes with catching 81 passes for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns, the numbers Austin put up in 2009. But for Austin it's easy to remain grounded. "I haven't changed my routine much," he says. "Still talk to the same people at the same restaurants, still talk to the same valet guys."
Austin still sees himself as that unknown kid out of Monmouth University who in 2006 caught the eye of Bill Parcells, then the coach of the Cowboys. And the fifth-year vet talks very much like someone trying to earn a roster spot, rather than a guy trying to earn his way back to the Pro Bowl, which he did in his first season as a starter. But that's what has gotten this former reserve where he is, and it's why fantasy owners should believe he has plenty more to offer in 2010.
After briefly sitting out the beginning of voluntary workouts with his contract situation unsettled, Austin, a restricted free agent, reported and did not let it become a distraction. Instead, he devoted himself to improving every aspect of his game, while Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expressed the team's dedication to Austin. "We're just not going to have Miles Austin anyplace but with the Dallas Cowboys," Jones told a radio station. "We need him."
Fantasy owners need Austin too. He's the No. 1 receiver on a team that loves to throw the ball and the only reliable threat on the outside. At 26 he's far from reaching his peak. And after becoming a starter last season, he still has loads of upside.
The Cowboys may have a 90-catch tight end in Jason Witten, but he's not the downfield or sideline threat that Austin is. Dallas originally brought in Roy Williams to fill the role, but for whatever reason that hasn't happened. Rookie Dez Bryant, whom the Cowboys selected with the 24th pick, has sublime athleticism but still has much to learn before he can even begin to threaten Austin as Dallas's top target.
And maybe just as important, Austin feels the need to prove that last season was no fluke. While other Cowboys were expected to report to the team's facility four times a week, he was there up to six, improving his catching skills, obsessing over his route running and getting in as much work with quarterback Tony Romo as he could.
Austin has set a goal to shed eight pounds from last season's playing weight of 214 in order to "run faster more consistently," which could make him an even greater big-play threat. Last year he was already one of the league's most explosive wideouts; he caught a pass of 40 yards or longer in seven of 16 games; and of receivers who caught 50 or more passes, only DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson and Greg Jennings had a better yards-per-catch average. "You've got to catch the ball first, but after that I try my hardest to get into the end zone every time," says Austin. "I always try for the home run."
He hit the big one last year, and with that year of experience and a desire to improve, there's no reason to think that he won't hit it again.