The 49ers are bringing aboard Tavon Austin as a free agent, but what should the team expect from the speedy former first-round NFL Draft pick?
Reports on Friday told the Niners were going to bring aboard Austin along with former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver J.J. Nelson to bolster a wide receiver corps lacking both speed and veteran depth. This, after San Francisco watched second-year wideout Deebo Samuel suffer an offseason foot fracture and fellow wideout Travis Benjamin opt out of the upcoming season.
Austin is surely the more heralded of the two new additions, being a top-10 NFL Draft choice of the St. Louis Rams back in 2013. Yet Austin never truly lived up to the hype he received coming out of West Virginia. Yes, his blazing-fast 4.34 40-yard dash back before his rookie year was something to get excited about. And speed was certainly something head coach Kyle Shanahan considered when targeting him over the past few days.
But the numbers, both between the Rams and Dallas Cowboys, never reached those desired levels of expectations for a top-drafted wide receiver:
|5 yr||5 yr||LAR-STL||75||50||328||194||1689||8.7||12||77||81||2.6||22.5||59.1%||5.1||184||1238||9||58||65||6.7||16.5||2.5||378||7.7||2927||21||21||24|
|2 yr||2 yr||DAL||21||0||37||21||317||15.1||3||14||64||1.0||15.1||56.8%||8.6||12||102||1||4||20||8.5||4.9||0.6||33||12.7||419||4||1||4|
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
There are, however, a few interesting tidbits to digest here.
For starters, Austin has doubled as a rushing-type wide receiver, which shouldn’t be unfamiliar to 49ers fans after watching Samuel amass 159 rush yards and three touchdowns his rookie season. One figures Shanahan paid attention to the dual-purpose abilities Austin has flashed over the course of his career.
There’s the return-game element, too. Fellow wide receiver Richie James, who spent the last two years as the Niners’ primary return specialist, could miss the opening weeks of the regular season with a broken wrist.
That opens up the door for Austin to be featured on special teams as well, should he make the roster.
But these aspects of Austin’s skill set aren’t likely the sole reasons why Shanahan made him a target.
No, it’s his deep-field abilities.
49ers want Tavon Austin as their downfield threat
One of those other reclamation projects San Francisco worked with the past few seasons was veteran wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who never truly caught on during his first years with the Buffalo Bills. In 2017, Goodwin nearly reached the 1,000-yard plateau before being beset by both injuries and family tragedies.
Goodwin was Shanahan’s down-the-field weapon, and it wasn’t uncommon to see the Olympian’s track-level speed on full display during Yankee concepts and the like:
In 2018, amid what was otherwise a frustrating offensive year for the 49ers, it was abundantly clear Shanahan’s offense needed deep speed. Goodwin’s in-and-out appearances didn’t help much.
Last year, both Samuel and fellow wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders provided the deep threat. Shanahan ideally wanted to use Goodwin as a “gadget weapon,” but that didn’t materialize as Goodwin netted only 12 receptions for 186 yards and a touchdown.
Goodwin’s trade to the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2020 draft coincided with the Niners bringing aboard Benjamin, another veteran speed threat whose career had fizzled out a bit in recent seasons.
With Benjamin gone, it’s now Austin’s time to potentially seize this niche role.
It’s pretty easy to suggest Austin could resurrect his own career under Shanahan’s tutelage and system. And while there’s certainly a potential for this, it’s more likely Shanahan eyes Austin as both a return specialist and deep threat, someone who can be used to fill the kind of role envisioned for Goodwin in 2019 and initially Benjamin in 2020.
As such, one shouldn’t expect Austin’s numbers to eclipse what he managed to do earlier in his career. Heck, he might not even make the roster.
If he does, however, Shanahan has an ideal plan for him.