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One NFL team may make a first-round gamble on Geno Smith's diminutive Mountaineers target, Tavon Austin, who dazzled at the combine and has teams rethinking the value of a game-breaker
Deep and just a tad dull: That's the 2013 draft class, with its slew of highly ranked offensive linemen and its dearth of potential superstars at quarterback. Or at least so goes the commentary among scouts and coaches—until the name of Tavon Austin comes up. Which is happening more and more frequently as April 25 draws nigh.
"Now there's a guy that makes you go, Wow!" says NFL.com draft expert Gil Brandt of Geno Smith's West Virginia teammate, whose stock has been on a steep rise since the combine despite his slight stature: 5'8" and 174 pounds. "He's got the heart of a lion," says Brandt, "and he can hurt a defense so many different ways."
Listed on the Mountaineers' roster as a wide receiver, Austin did more damage from the inside, slot-receiver spot, though it wasn't unusual to see him line up wide, then gash the defense on a jet sweep. And as his senior season unspooled, coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff got more creative in finding ways to get Austin the ball. Against Oklahoma on Nov. 17, they put him in the backfield, then looked on, slack-jawed, as Austin eviscerated the Sooners' defense for 572 all-purpose yards, 344 of them rushing on just 21 carries.
He is a receiver, running back, returner, game-breaker and one-man momentum swing. In at least one sense, the product of Baltimore's Dunbar High is also a pioneer. The most effective slot receivers in the league—Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Danny Amendola—were all undrafted free agents. So one of the questions hovering over this draft is, How early will teams select a player with Austin's unique skill set?
Earlier than ever, says Phil Savage, former G.M. of the Browns and now executive director of the Senior Bowl. "As the spread offense trickles uphill from the college game," he says, so-called space players—hybrid threats like the Seahawks' Percy Harvin and the Packers' Randall Cobb—"have bigger and bigger roles in the game."
Austin was knocking on the door of the first round before reporting to the February combine, where he was superb in positional drills—he has excellent hands—and ran a 4.34 40. (One scout told SI that he hand-timed Austin under 4.3.) Last season, in an effort to raise the profile of the Baltimore Burner, Holgorsen got in the habit of referring to him as "the fastest man in college football." Damned if he wasn't right. Since the combine, Austin has generated more buzz than Jennifer Lawrence—who, at 5'8", would stand eye to eye with him—and most likely climbed into the middle of round 1.
Can he break into the Top 10? Not unless he suddenly gets bigger. The game is changing, but not so rapidly that NFL people can gamble so much on a player so small, even if his ankle-snapping cuts allow him to elude big hits. "I haven't missed a game in eight years," Austin pointed out, politely, at the combine, "so I think my durability should be pretty good.... I'd like to be two inches taller, but it ain't happening."
Nor does it matter. "His game tape is incredible, his combine workout was freakish, and he ran the fastest 40 I've ever timed," said the above-mentioned scout. "None of this is hype. He's going in the first 15."