The Rams never got enough out of Tavon Austin

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Les Snead had just wrapped up his seventh draft as general manager for the Los Angeles Rams, but he began by talking about a high-priced veteran who no longer played for him. The subject was Tavon Austin, the diminutive speedster who was sent to the Dallas Cowboys for what at that point represented the Rams' seventh sixth-round pick.

Snead, seated alongside head coach Sean McVay, opened his Saturday news conference by calling Austin "one of my favorite human beings on the planet," a compliment he wouldn't just throw around. He praised his competitiveness, his mental toughness, his unselfishness in the midst of a significantly limited role. And in the end, Snead said, "Tavon deserved a chance to go try to be Tavon."

The underlying belief is that Austin never really got that chance with the Rams, at least not to the extent the organization and its fans would have hoped.

The Rams traded up eight spots to select Austin eighth overall out of West Virginia in 2013. He measured only 5-foot-8, but was nonetheless considered the best wide receiver in his draft class; an all-purpose threat who matched gaudy statistics with an eye-popping 4.34-second 40-yard dash at that year's scouting combine.

Since then, however, 90 players have amassed more scrimmage yards. Disregard last season, when he was left without a role in McVay's offense, and Austin still ranked only 86th in scrimmage yards from 2013 to 2016.

But Snead doesn't consider Austin's stint with the Rams an all-out failure. Asked why it didn't seem to work out, Snead began by pointing out that "Tavon led our team in touchdowns the year before we signed him to the contract."

The year was 2015, the last one for the Rams in St. Louis. Austin finished it with 907 scrimmage yards, his highest in a single season by a wide margin. He actually tied Todd Gurley for the team lead with 10 touchdowns (five of them as a receiver, four as a runner and one as a punt returner). Weeks before the start of the following season, the Rams signed Austin to a four-year, $42 million extension that quickly became the subject of ridicule.

"It was never necessarily to be, hey, a No. 1 receiver," Snead said. "But he was a weapon for us on special teams and in the offense. He led our team in touchdowns, and he had a lot of special-teams touchdowns called back. He was just a unique weapon on offense."

The Rams never truly maximized that weapon, and whether the fault lies in the staff or in the player is impossible to truly know. In four years under Jeff Fisher, the Rams had Austin return punts and did their best to duplicate getting the ball to him in space elsewhere, using him largely on screens, jet sweeps and quick slants. From 2013 to 2016, Austin averaged a whopping 7.7 yards per carry, but he only ran the ball 125 times. As a receiver, he hauled in 60.1 percent of his targets, ranked 120th among 166 players during that four-year stretch.

"I do think us going through a lot of QB changes, even coordinators, probably hindered his progress," Snead said. "Because any time you’re a shorter receiver -- if you were with the same QB for a while, you get used to passing the ball to that person."

Fisher answered a similar question about Austin shortly after the Rams drafted him. He talked about how his quarterback at the time, Sam Bradford, stood 6-foot-4 and therefore wouldn't have much trouble finding him. But Bradford was just one of eight quarterbacks the Rams used during Austin's first four seasons, to go along with three different offensive coordinators.

In 2016, the Rams finished last in the NFL in every major offensive category and Austin was one of many whose numbers suffered through it.

In 2017, Austin finished with 317 scrimmage yards in a role that no longer included punt returns and really only involved duties as a backfield decoy.

McVay called Austin to break the news to him that he had been traded. Austin initially went silent, took a moment to take it in, then decided he would be "in a better place." In a conference call with Cowboys reporters, Austin added that the trade would take "a lot of weight off my shoulders," perhaps a reference to the massive extension that ultimately became a burden.

"I gave my blood, sweat and tears over here -- the St. Louis Rams, then coming to the L.A. Rams," Austin said. "Unfortunate how it ended for me last year, me being hurt, me not playing -- not playing at all, to be honest -- it kind of hurt me as a player because I know the competitor I am. But I’m not the type to throw anybody under the bus and cry about it. I took it on the chin, kept my mouth closed, kept working through everything. I can honestly say I’m a better man today."

Austin was hardly able to get on the field for McVay, in any setting. While his teammates grew familiar with a new offense during the offseason program, Austin worked out on the side by himself, rehabbing a wrist still tender from surgery. He returned to full activities in training camp, then popped his hamstring in the first week and was sidelined for most of the summer.

By the middle of August, the Rams had traded for Sammy Watkins, moving Austin way down on their receiver depth chart. Austin then muffed a handful of early-season punts -- caused, perhaps, by a wrist that hadn't fully healed -- and Pharoh Cooper replaced him while on his way to the Pro Bowl.

Austin spent most of his on-field time providing the threat of a jet sweep to open holes for Gurley. But that role steadily diminished, as well. The Rams restructured his contract, largely out of desperation after Watkins departed as a free agent. But then they traded for Brandin Cooks, and Austin's presence once again became unnecessary.

"I hit rock bottom," Austin said, referencing the 2017 season. "It's only the way up now."

By trading Austin, the Rams saved $1 million, just enough to sign their new draft picks -- but Snead will appreciate much more than that.

"The guy led our team in touchdowns and was a threat to go the distance, so, he did have a productive career with us," Snead said. "It would’ve been interesting to see if he would’ve been healthy last year, how it turned out. But it didn’t, and this is where we are today.”

ESPN's Todd Archer contributed to this report.