Rams part with Tavon Austin and fulfill team needs in late draft rounds
Five years ago, the Rams made Tavon Austin the eighth pick in the NFL draft, envisioning that the diminutive but speedy receiver would develop into one of the league’s most productive playmakers.
On Saturday, in the midst of making 10 late-round selections in the 2018 draft, the Rams parted ways with the Austin, who never found a role in coach Sean McVay’s offense.
The Rams traded Austin to the Dallas Cowboys for a sixth-round pick.
“We did feel like Tavon deserved a chance to go try to be Tavon,” general manager Les Snead said.
Austin’s departure once again illuminated the imprecise science that is the draft.
Players such as offensive tackle Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick in 2014, did not pan out for the Rams. First-rounders such as Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley became stars.
“You certainly don’t like to lose players that can make plays and do special things like Tavon has done over the course of his career,” McVay said. “But, I think you also want to be mindful of what a special, unique person he is.
“We felt like that opportunity and all things being considered it was the right thing and to do right by him as well.”
The Rams, in the process of negotiating a possible mega-extension for Donald, save about $1 million of salary-cap space by moving the 27-year-old Austin, who caught 194 passes for 1,689 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Rams.
Austin signed an eyebrow-raising, four-year, $42-million contract extension before the 2016 season. He received nearly $15 million in salary and roster bonuses last season, but never got integrated into McVay’s offense after sitting out offseason workouts as he recovered from wrist surgery and then suffering a hamstring injury during training camp.
Once the season began, he lost his job as the punt returner and was utilized primarily as a decoy.
After last season’s unproductive performance, Austin agreed to rework his deal to what essentially was a one-year contract.
The Cowboys and other teams had made inquiries about Austin throughout the offseason, Snead said. During the draft, he received a text from Stephen Jones, the Cowboys’ director of player personnel, asking if Austin was available.
“Talked with Sean and we thought it was the best thing for us and Tavon,” Snead said.
The Rams went into the draft without a first- or second-round pick. But they made six trades during the draft, including five Saturday, and emerged with 11 players.
Building offensive line and linebacker/pass rushing depth were the Rams’ main goals going into the draft, and those themes played out.
The defending NFC West champions drafted three offensive lineman, four defensive linemen, three linebackers and one running back to help fortify a team that is regarded as Super Bowl contender after making several high-profile offseason acquisitions.
“We had a lot of players that different scouts, coaches, position groups wanted,” Snead said of the Rams’ draft board. “So, we did think that if we could turn a lot of the — let’s call it, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-round picks — into more picks, we’d have a chance to get fits and fill some roles or get players with traits that have a chance to fill some of those roles.
“So, that was the strategy and we were able to do that. ... Now, we’ll go to work and get them on the field and start developing them.”
After waiting through Thursday’s first round and Friday’s second, the Rams started their draft with the selection of Texas Christian offensive lineman Joseph Noteboom in Friday’s third round.
On Saturday, they chose Michigan State center Brian Allen in the fourth round. Just as the Rams expect veteran Andrew Whitworth to mentor Noteboom, veteran center John Sullivan will be a role model for Allen.
“To be able to be in a room with him and be able to learn from a guy who’s shown he can play at the level he has for as long as he has is something pretty incredible for me,” Allen said, adding, “I definitely will be picking his brain as long as I don’t annoy him too much.”
The Rams then selected three defensive players — Stephen F. Austin end John Franklin in the fourth round, and Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser and Oklahoma linebacker Ogobonnia Okoronkwo in the fifth — before choosing Tennessee running back John Kelly with one of four sixth-round picks.
Kelly is expected to serve as a change-of-pace back behind Gurley, the reigning NFL offensive player of the year, and Malcolm Brown.
“I really just can’t wait to be able to learn some of the things he was able to do and be able to compete with him in practice,” Kelly said of Gurley.
After taking Maine offensive lineman Jamil Demby, the Rams concluded the draft with four more players for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
They chose Rutgers lineman Sebastian Joseph and Louisville linebacker Trevon Young in the sixth round, and Texas Christian linebacker Travin Howard and Southern Methodist defensive end Justin Lawler in the seventh.
The Rams began contacting undrafted free agents Saturday. They will not hold a rookie camp, but they will hold a tryout camp at some point, McVay said.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein
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