Metrics that Matter: Tavon Austin's historic inefficiency
(“Metrics that Matter” is a short feature that appears every weekday, highlighting a notable fantasy lesson to be learned from PFF’s advanced stats.)
One of my boss’s (Jeff Ratcliffe) biggest pet peeves is when someone says a player is “bad” when talking about an inefficient or poorly-graded NFL player. It’s lazy analysis, but it’s also false. When considering there are only 1,696 active players in the NFL (32 teams, 53-man rosters), and that makes up 0.0005 percent of the U.S. population, even the worst player in the NFL is in the 99.999th percentile when it comes to playing football. If you think your rookie cornerback was bad last year, I promise you, I’d be much worse.
Still, a player can be bad relative to those other 1,695 players, and that certainly appears to be the case with Tavon Austin. Relative to the 218 wide receivers to record a snap last season – or even worse, his fellow 36 wide receivers to see at least 100 targets last year – he was not good.
Last season, Case Keenum and Jared Goff averaged a passer rating of 56.1 when targeting Tavon Austin. When targeting all other Rams receivers, they averaged a passer rating of 75.1.
Somehow, Kenny Britt saw only eight more targets than Austin, but totaled 493 more yards, two more touchdowns, and five fewer dropped passes. Keenum and Goff combined to average a passer rating of 96.2 when targeting Britt.
Last season, among all 89 wide receivers with at least 50 targets, Austin ranked worst in yards per target average, second-worst in WR rating (passer rating when targeted), eighth-worst in drop rate (percentage of catchable targets dropped), and 14th-worst in yards per route run. Of these same 89 wide receivers, Austin graded out sixth-worst via the pass.
Austin’s struggles as a receiver aren’t just limited to last season either. Since 2000, among all wide receivers (249 qualifying) to see at least 200 targets throughout their career, Austin ranks dead-last in yards-per-target average.
Although this isn’t really what you’re hoping for from a wide receiver, Austin should be commended for his ability as a runner. Among all players with at least 125 carries since 2013, Austin leads in yards per carry average (7.74), with 2.12 more than the next-closest player (Mike Gillislee, 5.62) over this span. Outside of that, it’s hard to be optimistic about Austin’s fantasy potential.
What does this mean for fantasy?
Typically, volume is a “stickier” metric than efficiency, and efficiency typically “regresses to the mean” over a larger sample. This means that, although Austin was highly inefficient, he has averaged 6.2 targets per game over the past two seasons, and we shouldn’t expect that to drop too significantly. Also, because he was so inefficient last season, we might expect that to improve next year due to a natural regression to the mean. Or at least, this is the common argument for inefficient wide receivers who saw high volume the previous season.
However, I disagree with this line of reasoning when it comes to Austin. Players don’t regress to the mean, they regress closer to their own individual mean. Austin’s “mean” for the past four seasons now is that of one of the least-efficient wide receivers in the league. So we shouldn’t expect him to improve too much in efficiency. A new coaching regime likely also puts a dent in any target optimism. Although efficiency is less “sticky” than volume metrics on the whole, that’s much less true when dealing with the polar ends of the efficiency spectrum. Austin was so inefficient last season that it’s likely he sees a significant dropoff in volume.
Austin does have one thing working for him. In spite of being one of the least-efficient wide receivers of the past decade or so, he is one of the highest-paid. Only two wide receivers are set to make more money than Austin in 2017. Remarkably, only six teams have a higher percentage of their total spending invested on the wide receiver position this season than the Rams. After the selection of Cooper Kupp in the third round, Austin likely gets kicked back outside. Kupp ran 85.2 percent of his routes from the slot in college last season, while Austin ran 54.8 percent of his routes from the slot in 2016. Opposite Austin will be ex-Bills wide receiver Robert Woods, who has also disappointed in efficiency, posting four straight seasons of 75 or more targets and fewer than 700 yards.
There isn’t much target competition for Austin, and he’ll likely still see playing time given the big contract, but I’ll be avoiding him in almost all of my leagues due to historic and consistent inefficiency and pessimism for the state of the offense as a whole.