The NFL’s annual pre-draft meat market wraps up Tuesday, but one of the players generating the most buzz at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis was former Dunbar star Tavon Austin. His 4.34 in the 40-yard dash Sunday validated the gigabytes of electrifying game tape the wide receiver compiled at West Virginia.
Austin was already being viewed as a likely first-round pick after piling up 3,413 receiving yards, 1,033 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns as West Virginia’s version of Percy Harvin, the do-it-all playmaker for the Minnesota Vikings. After his performance running around in spandex, he could be the first receiver drafted.
Unfortunately for those fans who would love to see the Baltimore native begin his professional career back where his amateur career started, Austin will likely be off the board when the Ravens pick at No. 32. Still, there is nothing wrong with daydreaming about the possibility of him darting under passes from Joe Flacco.
The Ravens already have one of the NFL’s fastest wide receiver in Torrey Smith, who is entering his third season. But pairing him with Austin, who didn’t have much trouble getting separation in college, would really open up the field for Flacco. Austin is quick enough to make plays outside the numbers, is a threat in the screen game and could be employed out of the backfield like the Vikings have done with Harvin and the Green Bay Packers have done with Randall Cobb. But he is especially dangerous in the slot and reminds some draft analysts of New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker, though Welker doesn’t have Austin’s wheels.
For what it’s worth, Austin told The Baltimore Sun this weekend that he believes he’s the best all-around player in the draft.
Trading up is always possible, I guess, and the Ravens could have as many as 11 picks once compensatory picks are dispensed. But it may take moving up into the first half of the round to get him, which would be a bold move. Would such a gamble be worth it?
Two year ago, the Atlanta Falcons, sensing they were one dynamic wide receiver away from a championship, moved up 21 spots to select wide receiver Julio Jones. They gave the Cleveland Browns five picks, including a future first-rounder, to do it. That trade was initially panned by some, but Jones is already a Pro Bowl player and the Falcons made the playoffs in two straight seasons and played in this year’s NFC championship game.
Austin is a completely different player, starting with the fact that Jones has five inches and 46 pounds on him, and it would be unfair to compare them. I am only providing him as an example that such a move by a playoff team is not unprecedented, though in the past the Ravens have only leaped up in the draft for a quarterback.
The Ravens have more pressing needs, sure. General manager Ozzie Newsome said earlier this month that the team needs to bolster the middle on their defense, so defensive tackle, inside linebacker and safety could be positions they look to address early in the draft. The left tackle position is in flux, especially with Michael Oher, whom the Ravens moved up three spots to select four years ago, entering the final year of his rookie deal. And you can never have enough quality pass rushers, especially since the Ravens may lose outside linebacker Paul Kruger in free agency.
But we know the Ravens almost always draft players based on value, not need. They will take the best player available, especially since this draft class is considered to be deep in the trenches.
Is Austin a player the Ravens will covet in April? They chatted with him at the combine, but it is too soon to say just how smitten they are. Plus, after Austin ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash in Indy, chances are they aren't alone in their admiration. It seems unlikely the Dunbar product winds up in purple, but he is a prospect to keep an eye on, even if it is just because he is Baltimore bred.
--- This quarterback class is considered by most analysts to be mediocre. There is no can’t-miss prospect like Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in this draft. Some have said there are no quarterbacks worthy of first-round grades. But still, I would be surprised if fewer than three quarterbacks go in the first round and it certainly would not be stunning if the Kansas City Chiefs took one first overall. West Virginia’s Geno Smith opened up some eyes by running a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash Sunday. North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon has been compared to Flacco. USC’s Matt Barkley might have been a top-10 pick had he come out after his junior season. And Florida State’s E.J. Manuel performed well at the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine, presenting himself as an attractive option if a team wants to go the read-option route with a mobile passer. Quarterback-needy teams like Arizona and Buffalo might not be able to wait until early in the second round to get a guy they covet. Trust me, there will be trades and there will be quarterbacks taken in the first round.
--- I have seen a lot of mock drafts linking the Ravens to inside linebackers such as Manti Te’o and Kevin Minter. It makes sense, I guess, given that Ray Lewis will now be in a TV studio in Bristol, Conn., on Sundays. There is no question that Lewis was a great first-round pick in 1996, but the NFL has changed dramatically since then, so much that I can’t help but question the notion of taking an inside linebacker in the first round unless he is a special talent capable of playing in every situation. With NFL teams pounding the ball between the tackles less and less, the position is not long as pivotal as it once was. The Ravens are in flux at the position with Lewis in retirement, Dannell Ellerbe eying free agency and Jameel McClain coming off a neck injury. But those last two guys are proof the Ravens can find quality linebackers long after the first round.
--- As I mentioned above, the Ravens might be looking for a new left tackle in this draft. Bryant McKinnie is a free agent, and while his insertion into the starting lineup was a key move in the team’s Super Bowl run, I don’t know if they can count on him going forward. Oher was removed from his left tackle spot and fared better as a right tackle, and his future after the 2013 season is cloudy. My colleague Aaron Wilson is doing a heck of a job out in Indianapolis at the combine -- well, except for an underwhelming performance in the 40-yard dash -- but he reports that the Ravens met with Florida State left tackle Menelik Watson. The Ravens probably won’t be in position to draft one of the top tackle prospects in Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher or Lane Johnson, but they could find a quality player in the second round like they did last year with Kelechi Osemele.
--- The Ravens have the last pick in the first round -- a detriment they will gladly take with their Lombardi Trophy -- but while this draft lacks top-end star power, it is considered to be very deep, especially in the first two rounds. This looks like it could shape up to be another year where a talented player falls into their lap late in the round. Maybe it's Austin or maybe it's one of the many talented linemen on either side of the ball. But knowing Newsome and the Ravens, they will probably wind up with a player they really like at No. 32.