When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Calvin Austin III in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, two major aspects to Austin’s traits were his size and his speed. His build of 5-foot-7, 170 lbs. is tiny, even for the smaller of NFL receivers, and his 4.32 time in the 40-yard dash was the third-fastest of the 2022 NFL Draft receiver class.
Not many NFL receivers comparable to his size go on to have fully successful careers or become prolific playmakers. There are some examples like T.Y. Hilton, Steve Smith and Tyreek Hill, but each of them possessed unique athleticism in their speed and burst to have great release off the line of scrimmage.
Those traits helped each of those receivers not be limited to playing in the slot, where many receivers at 5-foot-9 or shorter are limited to because of height disadvantages against NFL corners. The good thing for Austin is he shares some of those athletic traits.
Here’s a comparison between Austin and Hill when each were coming out of college. Austin was only half an inch shorter, with a 40-yard dash time that was three-hundredths slower than Hill, but showed better burst in slightly faster 10-yard and 20-yard splits and a longer broad jump:
But athleticism isn’t the only thing Austin would need, as he needs to have skills as a route runner to create space both coming off the line of scrimmage and later in his routes. Fortunately, that’s where Austin looks to be the strongest.
Watch this touchdown from Austin against Arkansas State in 2021 and you can see him use an outside jab step that froze his pressing cornerback just enough to give him inside leverage. Austin does this a lot in different directions to create space at the line of scrimmage against larger cornerbacks:
In that play, his opponent had man coverage. That meant Austin had to find a way to back him off just enough so Austin won the inside leverage to make himself an easier target on his vertical route for his quarterback.
But to make those types of routes work, Austin also has to put the fear of winning with outside leverage, even down the sideline, in his opponent. If that’s not something the cornerback will fear in the NFL, cornerbacks will just wait on his inside leverage moves to win.
Watch how Austin uses a couple jab steps on this route vs. Tulsa, but this time to the inside, to create just enough space for Austin to get behind his man down the sideline for the deep ball:
Austin put enough space between himself and his man to the outside to make a big play down the field. That’s the kind of route running that can force even good cornerback to be worried about either side.
It’s that kind of skills as a route runner that forces cornerbacks to be on their toes at all times. Ahmad Gardner, who was the second cornerback taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, admitted that Austin was the toughest receiver he’d guarded in college football.
When they faced off in 2020, Austin gave Gardner fits and never allowed the 6-foot-2 cornerback to pin him at the line of scrimmage. Watch this rep at the top of the play where Austin was so quick off the line that he won inside leverage and broke his route back to the sideline while Gardner was recovering to force the defensive pass interference:
What’s very impressive about Austin’s tape and athleticism is how quick and explosive he is with the slightest of moves. He forces cornerbacks to honor several different aspects of his route running, which can either force opponents to back off an give him space, or to be overaggressive and make more mistakes.
Here’s a drag route when a simple jab step by Austin backed Gardner off just enough to create space to the inside. Once the ball arrived, Austin’s quick burst allowed him to turn a short pass into a long gain:
Austin will have to continue to hone his skills and technique in the NFL as he faces larger cornerbacks who are more refined. But his skillset as a playmaker will be something Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada look to use in various roles of the Steelers’ offense, and not just as a slot receiver.