Tavon Austin, long expected to be traded or released before the end of the week, is returning to the Los Angeles Rams with a restructured contract.
Austin’s deal will now pay him the $5 million he was already guaranteed in 2018 and gives him the additional $3 million — money the Rams would have saved by parting with him before Friday — in incentives, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
The remaining three years of Austin’s contract, which didn’t carry any dead money, have been eliminated, allowing the 27-year-old receiver to become a free agent at season’s end, the source said. The Rams now have just under $30 million in 2018 cap space if you consider what they must allocate for the draft.
Restructuring Austin’s deal appears to be a direct result of losing wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Kansas City Chiefs and being left with few other options in free agency. The Rams are hopeful that either Josh Reynolds or Mike Thomas could replace Watkins as a vertical threat in their offense but are also conscious of having to fill his void by committee. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp remain the main receiving threats in Sean McVay’s offense, and Austin will be competing with the likes of Reynolds, Thomas and Pharoh Cooper for snaps.
The Rams, under current general manager Les Snead, drafted Austin eighth overall out of West Virginia in 2013 but have yet to find an ideal fit for the 5-foot-8 speedster.
Austin returned punts and served in something of a hybrid role as a wide receiver and running back in his first four years under then-coach Jeff Fisher, totaling 2,610 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns. The Rams signed Austin to an eyebrow-raising four-year, $42 million extension weeks before the 2016 season but never came close to recouping the value of it.
The Rams entered last offseason hoping to use Austin as a vertical threat in McVay’s offense, in a role similar to the one DeSean Jackson filled with the Washington Redskins.
But Austin was slowed by wrist surgery during the offseason program, then barely stepped on the field in training camp because of a lingering hamstring injury. The Watkins acquisition around the middle of August eliminated the need for Austin as a vertical threat. He then muffed a handful of early season punts, prompting him to lose his job to Cooper, who ultimately made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist.
Austin was used mostly as a backfield decoy, streaking across the field with the threat of a jet sweep in hopes of opening holes for running back Todd Gurley II. He finished the season with only 317 scrimmage yards and played in two snaps during the Rams’ lone playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Rams are hopeful that a healthy offseason under McVay could change things for Austin.
They will allow him to compete for a spot as one of their wide receivers, with no real promises.
Say what you will about Tavon Austin, but there’s no lack of confidence in himself. Despite being one of the most overpaid players in the NFL last season – he made $1.15 million for every pass he caught – Austin is willing to bet on himself with the Los Angeles Rams.
It was reported on Thursday that Austin will be returning to L.A. on a restructured contract. Although that’s what it’s being called, it’s essentially a huge pay cut. The financial loss won’t necessarily come in 2018, though. It’ll hit in the following three years.
This is what his contract looks like now: one year, $5 million with the chance to earn an additional $3 million in incentives.
In order to stay with the Rams, Austin is not only sacrificing a possible $3 million in 2018, but he’s giving up another $28 million over the course of the following three seasons. Now, there was no dead money carried with that $28 million, so the Rams could have cut him with no penalty anyway, but that’s a substantial amount of money to clear off a contract.
It’s obvious Austin is fine with betting on himself. He was going to get $5 million this season regardless of whether the Rams cut him or not, but he’s willing to put his ability on the line to earn another $3 million with presumed performance-based incentives.
Had he opted not to restructure his deal, the Rams would have undoubtedly released him. That was the report all along if they were unable to find a trade partner. Gauging his market as a free agent is difficult because of his unique skill set, but he likely could have landed a multi-year deal worth at least $5 million per season.
After all, Taylor Gabriel landed a four-year, $26 million deal this offseason and although he was a more productive receiver, he’s a unique player like Austin. Heck, Cordarrelle Patterson signed a two-year, $8.5 million deal last offseason and he had two catches for 10 yards in 2015.
Austin is banking on having a really solid season in 2018 before hitting the open market next year. The earlier a player can reach free agency, the better, but Austin is taking a different path by betting on himself with a mere $3 million in incentives.