We have intriguing news for you every day, it seems. This time, it's about two 2013 NFL draft prospects we've talked about repeatedly: Tavon Austin and Xavier Rhodes. According to ESPN's Todd McShay, the Buccaneers love them both.
"I'm told they love Rhodes and they love [West Virginia receiver] Tavon Austin,'' McShay said. "If both of those guys are on the board and they don't get Revis, I don't know which they'd go with.''
We've talked about Rhodes repeatedly and at length. He's a bit of a raw cornerback, but he's big, physical, has long arms, plenty of experience in press man coverage and a willing run defender. He's everything the Buccaneers look for in a cornerback. Rhodes fits the system, fills a need and is a very good player. Whether he's "worth" the thirteenth pick in someone's mind isn't relevant. What is relevant is whether he makes the Buccaneers better than whoever else would be available. And in most realistic cases, he does exactly that.
Tavon Austin is a different beast, though, and he's much more intriguing to talk about. His value isn't tied to him as a player, although his talent is undeniable. He's electric with the ball in his hands, tough and explosive enough to not be limited by his size and overall a defensive coordinator's nightmare. He may be undersized, but he's not 'just' a slot receiver in the same way that Percy Harvin isn't just a slot receiver. Not that that designation is all that useful with the Buccaneers: Vincent Jackson was aligned in the slot frequently last season to take advantage of the matchup problems he poses.
The same could be true for Tavon Austin, in a very different way. Greg Cosell wrote an excellent article on the changes he's seeing in NFL offenses, and the role playes like Percy Harvin, Darren Sproles, Aaron Hernandez, Randall Cobb and Percy Harvin play in those changes. Here's the money quote:
I wrote about the Seattle Seahawks a number of weeks ago, specifically relating to the trade for Percy Harvin. I made the point that Seattle did not acquire Harvin solely to line him up at wide receiver. He will be so much more than that. He will align everywhere in the formation, the ultimate chess piece that can attack from anywhere on the board. Just like Cobb in Green Bay and Hernandez in New England. This is the light bulb moment. That's exactly what Austin should be in the NFL. Those who see him solely as a slot receiver are stuck in conventional thinking, and missing the larger, more expansive point. Austin is not a static, inert player. He's a movement player, a peripatetic ball of energy that creates all kinds of matchup issues for defenses.
In this kind of system, Tavon Austin would be extremely valuable. He would be used to force defenses into certain personnel groupings, create matchup problems all over the formation and find new ways to create explosive plays. He's the kind of player that allows you to do a lot of innovative things on offense.
The problem is: do the Buccaneers want to do that sort of thing? Their offense may be more old school than any in the NFL, built around running the ball, actually lining up a fullback on a lot of plays and using tight ends to actually block. While their receivers were interchangeable and all of them aligned at every receiving spot, we saw relatively few instances of real innovation. Tight ends played tight end spots, running backs played running back and receivers played receiver. The same is true with the New York Giants, where Mike Sullivan received his education.
Could the Bucs use Tavon Austin to his maximum potential, and would they find creative ways to use him? Sullivan is undoubtedly smart enough to do so and Greg Schiano knows the potential of playmakers like Austin and indeed Austin himself, having played against him in the same conference in college. But the system they showed last year didn't have a lot of room for a versatile playmaker who requires some out-of-the-box thinking.
I've also heard some questions about Freeman's accuracy in relation to Austin, but that's a largely irrelevant point to me. Yes, Freeman was too inaccurate last season, but it's not like he was incapable of connecting with his receiver. And if he can't be more accurate more consistently, then he's not the quarterback of the future anyway. Besides, it's not like Sammie Stroughter and Preston Parker struggled to produce with Freeman throwing them the ball. That, to me, is not an issue to worry about.
One thing that is a bit odd about the supposed love for Austin: the Bucs have been very, very busy signing wide receivers to compete for a third spot in the lineup this offseason. They appear to be going with competition to provide their answer, not with a high draft pick. They may see Austin as the kind of unique talent you can't pass up, though, and I wouldn't blame them for it. We all know how much Greg Schiano loves West Virginia players, after all.
Of course, all of this becomes a moot point if the Buccaneers give up their first-round pick for Darrelle Revis. Even if they don't, these players might not even make it to the thirteenth overall pick.