The Green Bay Packers worked out former St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Tavon Austin late last week and signed him to the active roster yesterday. The former first-round pick in 2013 was never able to match the production that was expected coming out of West Virginia, but he showed flashes late in his career and has the home run capability in the return game. As much as people want to make this out to be the Green Bay Packers signing a wide receiver and giving Aaron Rodgers a weapon, it’s in the return game where Austin will make his biggest impact.
Green Bay’s kick return game has left a lot to be desired this season and, quite frankly, in seasons past as well. According to Football Database, the Packers rank dead last in the NFL in average yards per return in the kickoff game with an abysmal 17.6 yards per return. Add on top that, Darrius Shepherd had a critical fumble on a return two weeks ago against the Indianapolis Colts, and many were clamoring for someone else to be back returning especially with the absence of Tyler Ervin (wrist/ribs injury).
Some might be thinking, Who cares? Most kickoffs go for touchbacks now anyways. While there is an uptick in the amount of touchbacks and that can’t be denied, the Packers still have had 22 returns in 11 games, or two returns on average per contest. And they haven’t gotten anything out of those returns outside of backed up starting field position.
Insert Tavon Austin.
A fair warning that needs to be said, please don’t watch Austin’s highlight reels from West Virginia and expect the world. The man has some of the most electric clips of any college football player I’ve ever seen. The way West Virginia incorporated him and used him in different ways will make you drool. That’s not the Austin the Packers are getting. But they are getting someone who has had success returning in the NFL (three punt return touchdowns in his career) and still has the motor and plenty of gas in the tank. This should be viewed by fans as a, “Why the hell not?” signing for the Packers. It certainly won’t hurt.
With Ervin out, the Packers have been searching for a replacement and have also limited the jet motion they like to run on offense. Austin seemingly could step into that role. The reason why he’s an instant impact guy in the return game and not as a receiver is based solely on opportunity. He could and should be the guy returning kicks and punts now for the green and gold.
But limit your expectations as far as contributions on offense go. He’s not going to be a guy that gets five-plus targets a game or 40-plus snaps a game for Green Bay. Envision what Ervin was doing for Green Bay’s offense (gadget player, in for the jet motion, hands on the rock once in awhile) and then just insert Austin in that exact same role.
I know it can be exciting seeing the Packers make a move they normally don’t in signing a free agent wide receiver late in the season. But this isn’t your normal wide receiver signing. Be excited about Austin the returner and what he can bring to the table in terms of explosiveness and upgrading what has been a super stale return team so far. Be excited about adding him to the punt return unit, which has been underwhelming.
The mindset should be the Packers added a versatile home run hitter in the return game. If he gives you anything at wide receiver, it is a cherry on top.