GREEN BAY, Wis. — Five years ago, few would have been talking about Tavon Austin. There would have been slim to none pre-draft hype around the 5-foot-8 receiver with the 4.34 speed.
Where would the West Virginia wide receiver have been drafted? Gil Brandt laughed.
"Probably the seventh round," said the retired longtime Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel.
Yet next month, Austin will be a first-round pick. He's in high demand. Teams are searching for their own Randall Cobb or Percy Harvin, someone who can line up wide, in the slot, in the backfield, wherever, and serve as a roaming matchup nightmare. Both Cobb and Harvin were mutations to the wide receiver position last year. Their coaches — by any means — devised ways to get them the ball.
So this April, West Virginia's Austin, Texas' Marquise Goodwin, maybe even Michigan's Denard Robinson and others, will be drafted to play similar roles.
Brandt, whose work with the Cowboys spanned three decades, sees the Cobb/Harvin threat growing and staying in the NFL. It's no fad, he says. It's a trend.
"I think the defense catches up and the offense moves ahead," Brandt said. "So I think the way that offenses are moving ahead now is with guys like Tavon Austin. And I think the other guy is Goodwin from Texas. He's not as good, but what a mismatch he is for someone to try to cover him."
Austin was often uncoverable last fall. He caught 112 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 643 yards on 72 carries with three scores. "Austin," Brandt says, "that guy is going to be a matchup problem."
At Texas, Goodwin was more of an athlete playing football. He never caught more than 33 passes in a season. But the athlete inside Goodwin could burst out in the NFL. He competed for the Unites States in the long jump at the 2012 London Olympics and was also a sprinter and jumper at Texas.
In the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine, Goodwin ran a 4.27 — nearly breaking the event record. This rare, instant 0-to-60 speed will get a team to bite in the third round, Brandt said.
Watching the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., one NFC scout shook his head as Robinson ran long, conventional routes at wide receiver in awkward, painful succession. The former college quarterback shouldn't be used in that role, he said. He needs to be in space. That's when speed and creativity take over.
And in 2013, that weapon is at a premium.
"In terms of finding a dynamic athlete, I guarantee you that there isn't a team in the league that wouldn't find a way to utilize that kind of player," the scout said. "Some better than others. But every team would love a guy like that. ... As teams find unique ways to use players that don't have traditional body types — like the outside lane receivers — these guys are going to become a more valuable commodity than they were in previous seasons."
Ask NFL safeties just how difficult it is to cover Harvin and Cobb.
Through 54 total plays in a loss to Indianapolis last season, Harvin motioned 12 times, ran a fake reverse four times, lined up at tailback twice and on 29 plays he lined up either in the slot or a bunch formation. This off-season, the Seattle Seahawks traded for Harvin and gave him a six-year, $67 million contract ($25.5 million guaranteed).
In Green Bay, the former University of Kentucky star Cobb had a similar effect. Before the season, Mike McCarthy studied New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles on film and then used the former college quarterback as a go-to weapon in the slot and on an assortment of quick passes into space.
Both players put a new stress on a defense. Cobb rarely came off the field in shattering the team record for all-purpose yards (2,342).
"He's got it all," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said of Cobb. "You just have to be aware of what he can do with the ball in his hands. And at the same time, you can't favor him too much because they have so many other weapons, too. So it's really just playing your role within the scheme."
That's why this player complicates the chess game between coordinators, too. Defenses can't leave linebackers on receivers with 4.4 speed. Defenses are forced to think and react a tick slower.
"I think it's always nice to have a jack-of-all-trades guy," Smith continued, "just because you can do a lot of things with him and a lot of personnel matchups where they might have him on the field but really he's playing running back. So you don't know exactly what type of personnel that is. I think that's what offensive coaches like.
"Defenses don't know whether they should be in base or nickel or dime or whatever."