The Buffalo Bills have added some depth at the receiver position while bringing in another competitor for a returner role by signing former first-round pick Tavon Austin. The 32-year-old Austin spent 2021 with the Jacksonville Jaguars in a limited role.
Austin was one of the people we recently suggested the Bills look at to shore up some points of interest on their roster. Last season with inconsistency from Isaiah McKenzie and Marquez Stevenson returning kickoffs and punts, they opted to put All-Pro safety Micah Hyde in down the stretch for ball security and decision-making. (Stevenson had two fumbles on 21 returns in 2021.) Buffalo added Khalil Shakir in the 2022 NFL Draft, and while he has some experience returning kicks, Bills’ general manager Brandon Beane never mentioned his return ability during press availability after the Draft, so it’s unclear if he will factor into the competition.
Austin was a prolific returner with the St. Louis and later Los Angeles Rams who drafted him in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The Rams acquired the spot for Austin in a trade up with the Bills, who used their later pick in the first round to nab QB EJ Manuel. Since his five years with the Rams, he has played in games for the Dallas Cowboys (2018-2019), Green Bay Packers (2020), and Jaguars (2021). He also spent the last few weeks of the 2020 offseason with the San Francisco 49ers, but after an injury, he never saw the field and was released from injured reserve in October before signing in Green Bay in December.
A quick gadget player in his youth, playing both running back and wide receiver, he never lived up to his hype coming out of West Virginia. In his best season in 2015, he managed a combined 907 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns plus another 280 yards on returns and a kickoff return touchdown.
In recent years, as he’s lost a step, his return numbers have plummeted. He had 18 kickoff returns in his rookie season, but a combined seven returns over the next four seasons. Since he left the Rams following the 2017 season, he hasn’t returned a kickoff. He’s continued returning punts at his multiple stops, bringing back two punts for the Jaguars in 13 games a year ago after three returns in four games for the Packers. Prior to that, he was consistently returning punts for the Cowboys and Rams.
For the Bills, this signing is direct competition for Marquez Stevenson’s spot on the roster. If Stevenson isn’t the primary returner, it’s hard to imagine a spot for him in the final 53 after playing just six offensive snaps in 2021. Austin would have to play surprisingly well to pass McKenzie on the roster.
In my most recent roster projection in mid-May, I didn’t have Stevenson making the roster, so even if Austin passes Stevenson, there’s no guarantee there will be a spot for him in the end.