Rodney Austin nearly made the Detroit Lions roster as an Undrafted rookie out of Elon in 2012. One of the teams’ final cuts that season, Austin battled with Dylan Gandy throughout camp, leading some to believe the much younger rookie had a chance of making the team over the older Gandy. Unable to close the gap, or effectively play the Center position, Austin was ultimately cut from the roster and signed to the Practice Squad.
2013 saw Austin come into camp more motivated and attack his chances with renewed vigor, but he was still on the bubble. Dylan Gandy, too, was fighting for a roster spot, this time as a starter at right guard. With his former competition locked into a four way battle with Larry Warford, Jake Scott and Leroy Harris, Austin quietly improved both as a guard and as a center.
By the preseason, there were even some rumblings that Austin could become long time starter Dominic Raiola’s successor at center. That bubble burst pretty quickly in the preseason when Austin reverted to some bad habits, putting his roster spot in jeopardy. He had shown enough as a Guard, however, and enough improvement to make the Practice Squad again. When the Titans tried to steal him away, he was signed to the active roster, showing that the team was dedicated to his development.
That Lions team had a different head coach, however, and Austin begins 2014 trying to claw his way up from the bottom once again. Always bringing a mean streak to the field, his biggest struggles have been with technique at Guard and fundamentals at Center. You always prefer that your swing interior OL can move seamlessly between the three positions and it’s possible the Lions call it complete on Austin’s development in 2014 if he doesn’t show some serious strides during camp.
Working in his favor, the Lions made the wise choice to retain Offensive Line Coach Jeremiah Washburn, who did some fantastic work in Detroit. Also working in his favor, Austin showed improvement from the moment he walked onto the practice field, even drawing praise from veteran Rob Sims during camp 2013. While Sims is by all accounts a good guy, he doesn’t often praise players unsolicited like he did Austin.
Though there are clearly some positives that help his chances, the Lions have made some moves that will make life a little more difficult for the now 3rd year former Elon Phoenix. The Lions drafted Travis Swanson with the 76th overall pick. The center out of Arkansas can also play guard, and while there is a decent chance he challenges Rob Sims for the starting spot, he’s an ideal swing backup if he does not. Swanson winning that starting left guard position would be a boon for Austin, who now faces an uphill battle for that swing spot.
Further complicating matters, the Lions also signed D.J. Morrell, OG, Old Dominion as an undrafted free agent, joining second year UDFA Darren Keyton from Central Michigan. Rodney Austin is the most experienced of the bunch, but with no real NFL in game experience between them it will all be about who projects to have the most value. Austin will have to show that his development is worth investing in. If the Lions sign a veteran guard, like they did last season, his future will become even more unclear.
Rodney Austin has shown a physical anger on the field with his blocking that sometimes comes at the expense of fluidity and technique. He’s a talented player that drew interest from other teams last season despite only preseason game experience. The Lions have positioned themselves to deploy a young, physical, imposing Offensive Line; and Austin’s youth and physicality could lend himself to that vision.
He will have to learn to perform better as a swing player or, as a long shot, show enough to present himself as a potential starter at left guard over entrenched veteran Rob Sims. Barring that, Austin faces a tough road to the Lions’ final 53 man roster. With Gandy gone, the biggest obstacle in his NFL career has been removed, but in its place is an even steeper hill to climb. If he can’t make the Detroit Lions roster and prove in 2014 that he’s an NFL caliber player, the team may move on from him for good.