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Running the Numbers: Why the Cowboys Are Keeping Miles Austin

Posted Mar 14, 2013

As teams around the league continue to dish out cash to coveted free agents, Cowboys fans have been forced to sit patiently as the team carries on with their salary cap management. Not the most exciting of offseasons, but still a much-needed “time out” for the organization.

The Cowboys’ biggest priority has been retaining the players they already have on the roster. We can debate whether or not the ’Boys have playoff-caliber personnel at the moment – I think they do – but it’s not as if this is a basement-dwelling squad. The team has lots of talent, and it would be a mistake to bring in new faces simply for the sake of change.

One of those talented players, a guy on whom the team could have saved some cash against the cap if they had cut, is wide receiver Miles Austin. Opinions on Austin vary greatly. We can all see that he is a quality receiver, but a combination of injuries and decreased efficiency while on the field in recent years had some calling for his release.

However, could it be possible that Austin has performed almost as he should and we just expected too much from him? Big and fast as he may be, Austin isn’t a long-term 81/1,320/11 guy like we saw in 2009. That was an outlying season for Austin (by far) and it’s very possible that his early success jaded us in regards to our outlook for his future.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Austin can and should have played better in 2012, and it’s frustrating to see a player with such apparent gifts fail to dominate as his potential suggests he could. But it isn’t as if Austin dramatically underperformed last season. In my 2012 preseason projection for Austin, I wrote:

A big part of Austin’s overall production will of course be how many opportunities he receives to make plays. With greater focus on the running game and a probable increase in throws to Dez Bryant, how will Austin’s targets be affected? Austin posted a career high in targets in 2009, totaling 8.6 per game. That number decreased to 7.2 in each of the last two seasons. Even with the other playmakers in Big D, I think you’ll see that number remain steady in 2012.

But just how many of those targets will Austin haul in? His career catch rate is 62.5 percent, but that’s inflated a bit from Austin’s historic 2009 season in which he caught 66.7 percent of passes thrown his way. In each of the other three seasons he has been targeted, Austin’s catch rate has been almost exactly 60.0 percent.

And finally, we get to touchdowns. Over his career, Austin has converted 13.4 percent of his receptions into touchdowns. I think that number is going to drop just a bit this year with a superior short-yardage game and a greater number of red zone targets for Bryant. Let’s call it 10.0 percent.

Extrapolating all of those numbers over 16 games, we get 69 receptions for 1,035 yards and seven scores.

Although expectations for Austin have always been through the roof, the numbers suggested Austin was set for only a moderately-effective 2012 campaign. Below are my projected numbers for Austin prior to the season, with his actual results in parentheses.

Targets: 115 (118)
Catch Rate: 60.0 percent (57.4 percent)
Receptions: 69 (66)
Yards: 1,035 (943)
Yards-Per-Target: 9.0 (8.0)
Touchdowns: 7 (6)

Austin turned in almost the exact season we should have anticipated with only very small declines in most categories. Again, it was hardly a stellar year for Austin, but he was well within what should have been his expected range of productivity.

Austin is admittedly a frustrating player because he has legit No. 1 wide receiver potential. Look at the top-10 most productive wide receivers from 2012. The averageheight/weight is 6-3, 220 pounds. Size is incredibly important for wide receivers, and Austin has it at 6-2, 217 pounds. He’s also got sub-4.5 speed and quickness to boot. On paper, he should be an amazing player.

But we can’t let our perception of what Austin should be distort our view of what he is. He’s still a productive wide receiver, albeit one who is probably underachieving, who has immense upside. With wide receivers like Mike Wallace commanding $12 million per season (or Dwayne Bowe at $11.2 million, or DeSean Jackson at $9.4 million, or Santonio Holmes at $9 million), Austin’s $7.7 million rate doesn’t seem so bad.

And although Austin sees more targets than the average No. 2 wideout, he still managed to rank 25th in both targets and receiving yards, suggesting his efficiency isn’t atrocious, but average. Actually, only six No. 2 receivers in the NFL posted more receiving yards than Austin in 2012.

Looking to 2013

If we want to project Austin’s 2013 season, the first thing we need to do is determine his workload. The Cowboys figure to throw the ball less frequently next year (simply because they probably won’t be losing so much), but you can bet Austin will see a ton of single coverage with defenses focused in on Bryant and Jason Witten. That means Austin will probably again check in around 115 targets.

With Bryant really attracting attention outside, we might see Austin’s catch rate increase next year. A jump from 57.4 percent to, say, 62.0 percent isn’t out of the question simply because Austin will see a higher quality of targets.

Over the past three seasons, Austin has caught 178 passes for 2,563 yards, good for an average of 14.4 yards-per-reception. The Cowboys might work Austin underneath more in 2013 since he has struggled going deep in recent seasons (plus Bryant is killing it on deep routes), so that average might drop just a bit, but it would probably be in exchange for a higher catch rate. Either way, we can probably pencil in Austin for around 71 catches and somewhere in the vicinity of 1,022 yards. Meanwhile, Austin’s touchdown rate of 11.2 percent over the past three years will likely remain steady next season. If so, he’d reach the end zone eight times.

Ultimately, we’re probably going to see a 2013 season that closely resembles 2012 for Austin. The possibility is there for another breakout, especially with Bryant’s emergence shifting attention, but a 71/1,022/8 line looks like a decent projection. Does that make Austin worthy of $7.7 million per year? Maybe, maybe not. But Austin’s place in Dallas shouldn’t be, and never was, in jeopardy.


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