THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Tavon Austin has been waiting all season for his opportunity, and it looks like he’ll finally get it in Sunday’s regular-season finale, a day when most of the Los Angeles Rams‘ starters will sit.
“He’s going to get a bunch of opportunities,” Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur said, specifying that Austin will be used as a wide receiver. “I’m excited for him.”
Austin hasn’t had many. He enters Week 17 with 279 scrimmage yards, fewer than half his career average heading into this season. He lost his job as the Rams’ punt returner after an atypical number of early season muffs, which might have been caused by Austin’s offseason wrist surgery. He averaged only 13 offensive snaps through the first 15 games.
With Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Todd Gurley not expected to play, those snaps should increase significantly against the San Francisco 49ers (kickoff from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is set for 1:25 p.m. PT on Fox).
“When you get the ball in his hands, he’s extremely explosive,” LaFleur said. “So hopefully we can get the ball in his hands down the field a little bit.”
The Rams began the offseason program with the hope that Austin, the No. 8 overall draft pick in 2013, could become a vertical threat in their offense. He’s only 5-foot-8 and had never really been used to consistently beat defenses over the top. But the Rams lacked that skill set in their receiving corps, and Austin was set to cost them nearly $15 million toward the salary cap.
They wanted to maximize his role, but Austin wasn’t really available for it. He spent the offseason program recovering from surgery to repair ligament damage on his left wrist, then spent the majority of training camp fighting a nagging hamstring injury. The Watkins acquisition in mid-August knocked Austin down considerably on the receiver depth chart. Pharoh Cooper‘s emergence as a punt returner eliminated Austin’s role on special teams. Austin has been used exclusively as a quasi-running back — a very limited role considering Gurley’s workload.
“There’s some people that might not have been able to handle it the way he’s handled it,” LaFleur said. “He comes to work every day. He brings a lot of juice on the practice field. You see him in the game, he’s always jumping around and bringing the energy. He gets excited for his teammates, and I think he’s one of the best teammates that I can recall in my coaching career.”