Last night, before the Los Angeles Rams played an exhibition game against defending Super Bowl champ Denver, the team announced it will pay wide receiver Tavon Austin $42 million by extending his contract through the 2021 season.
And then they didn’t score a touchdown and lost 17-9.
Granted, it’s an exhibition game against the Broncos and their elite defense, and Austin by all accounts is a quality guy to have on the team.
But this curious move sounds like one that will backfire.
The amount of money Austin will earn makes him — in NFL parlance — a “true No. 1 receiver.” There isn’t any evidence to suggest he is one. For example, the No. 8 overall pick from 2013 reached career highs last season with 52 receptions, 10 touchdowns and 907 yards from scrimmage.
Note that I didn’t write 907 reception yards. A true No. 1 receiver should be counted on to approach 1,000 per season. He’s never had more than 500. Also, a true No. 1 receiver should challenge for 100 receptions in a season. Coach Jeff Fisher sees that as a possibility. But until there’s evidence to back it up, you’re asking Austin to double his output based on a hunch.
That’s $42 million worth of conjecture you’re trying to fit under a salary cap.
So Austin should be paid on the level of Dez Bryant, Julio Jones or Demaryius Thomas? I don’t see it, particularly when you also consider that his presence on the field doesn’t necessarily lead to other opportunities for the rest of a poor Rams receiving corps. A true No. 1 receiver should draw double teams, leading to open teammates. That didn’t happen last year, either.
To be clear, the Rams’ first-team struggles during the exhibition season have been wisely self-inflicted. L.A.’s offense is based on the production of running back Todd Gurley, last season’s offensive rookie of the year. Fisher held Gurley out of all but one offensive series. The Chargers used to do the same thing with LaDainian Tomlinson, knowing the back would be getting the ball 30-plus times per game. Why expose Gurley to extra pointless hits?
But to deserve $42 million, you’re supposed to be on a level where you can produce even when Gurley is on the bench.
This contract is another land mine in the DMZ that is L.A’s offense. The franchise traded a handful of draft picks for quarterback Jared Goff, who won’t play at the start of the year but that’s an acceptable risk. Gurley not playing is an acceptable risk.
Austin’s contract makes three risks — which should give people pause — just like the Rams offense could be hesitating in their return to Southern California.