Veteran receiver Tavon Austin could fill multiple roles for Packers
GREEN BAY - If there is anything left in free agent Tavon Austin’s 30-year-old body, the Green Bay Packers want to squeeze it out of him as they near the final stretch of the regular season and the playoffs.
Austin passed all the COVID-19 testing necessary to meet with the team and Monday afternoon the Packers agreed to terms with the speedy slot receiver/running back/ returner on a new deal, the terms of which were not available.
A source confirmed an NFL Network report that Austin was signing with the Packers. The Journal Sentinel reported late last week that Austin was in town for a tryout with the Packers.
Coming out of West Virginia as a first-round pick of the Rams in 2013, the 5-8½, 185-pound Austin ran the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds and during his seven years in the league was used a lot like the Packers use Tyler Ervin, a similar slot receiver/running back/returner.
The 5-10, 192-pound Ervin, who ran the 40 in 4.41 seconds at the combine in ’16, has been served a very specific role in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense, running jet sweeps on almost every play he’s in the game. The threat of Ervin running the ball has been more important than his production (13 carries for 67 yards and 11 catches for 84 yards), but teams still tend to honor him as a threat.
Ervin, however, has missed four games with wrist and rib injuries, including the last two against Indianapolis and Chicago. He practiced last week on a limited basis, but his status for this week is unknown and the Packers may be seeking insurance.
Austin, who will be eligible to practice Wednesday, could be used in the same way if Ervin remains sidelined and just as importantly, he could take over the punt-return duties from Darrius Shepherd, who has been no threat in place of Ervin.
According to an NFC scout who has kept tabs on Austin, his conditioning will determine a big part of whether he can help the Packers. He was not in shape when the 49ers signed him in August, the scout said, but word out of the San Francisco camp was that he was improving as training camp wore on.
Then he hurt his knee and was put on injured reserve.
“I do think he could be a slight upgrade over Ervin if he can perform how he was before the injury, but I question the kind of shape he is in coming off the injury,” the scout said. “He’ll do a good job (returning punts). He’s very natural at it.”
Austin was on the Rams when LaFleur was the offensive coordinator there in 2017 and so the coach is familiar with him.
Since the start of the ’17 season, Austin has just 34 catches for 364 yards (10.7) and three touchdowns and 71 carries for 372 yards (5.2) and two touchdowns. For his career, he has 215 receptions for 2,006 yards and 15 touchdowns and 196 carries for 1,340 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He has averaged 8.1 yards returning punts and 18.0 yards returning kickoffs.
Before signing with San Francisco, he played two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, where he was mostly a receiver and punt returner. He spent five seasons with the Rams before they traded him to the Cowboys in April of 2018 for a sixth-round pick.
Good news for Linsley
After the game, LaFleur thought center Corey Linsley had gotten a break and not suffered a season-ending injury in the Packers’ 41-25 victory over the Bears.
It turned out the prognosis was accurate.
However, the Packers will probably be without their starting center for a couple of weeks, according to a source familiar with his status. Linsley’s left leg was bent awkwardly at the end of a play against the Bears and it’s possible he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament, which does not require surgery but can sideline a player for 2-6 weeks depending on the severity.
If that is the case, Linsley should be able to wear a brace that will allow him to return once he is able to play without pain.
The Packers don’t have to hurry because left guard Elgton Jenkins, who played center in college, shifted seamlessly with rookie Jon Runyan holding his own when inserted at Jenkins’ spot. The most important thing for the Packers is to get Linsley 100% for the playoffs in January, so they may be cautious with him.
Right guard Lucas Patrick has been battling a right toe injury and had to leave the Bears game. Right tackle Billy Turner shifted to right guard and Rick Wagner filled in Turner’s spot.
LaFleur did not say whether Patrick would be available for the Philadelphia game Sunday.
“Lucas is a warrior,” LaFleur said. “He is as tough as they come and he’s definitely battling through that toe and really playing well, too. That’s not easy to do when you’ve got 300-pounders leaning on you. So, I thought he played outstanding. I love all the grit that he shows."
Rush waiver claim official
The Packers claimed Chicago Bears defensive tackle Anthony Rush on waivers Nov. 25 and Monday he cleared all of the COVID-19 on-boarding protocols and officially became a member of the defensive line. Rush is listed at 6 feet, 4 inches and 361 pounds and spent 2019 in Philadelphia. He played four games with Seattle this season before joining the Bears roster, although he did not play any snaps for Chicago.
Packers-Lions time change
The Detroit Lions remain in perpetual disarray but the Packers are fighting for the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC, so Fox elected to flex their Dec. 13 game at Ford Field to 3:25 p.m. CT.
The Packers are typically network darlings, and spiced by a prolific offense, they are now playing four of their final five scheduled games in front of a national audience despite Philadelphia, Detroit and Carolina being a combined 10 games under .500.
Sunday’s game against Philadelphia is at 3:25 p.m., then the game in Detroit, and the league scheduled the Panthers game for 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 19. The Packers then host the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 7:20 p.m.
If the season finale in Chicago remains a noon kick, the Packers will have played six prime-time games and four games in the national 3:25 p.m. time slot.