Sorensen: Panthers should shun sensible, take Tavon Austin

April 22, 2013 

The sensible and mature move would be for the Carolina Panthers to select a defensive tackle Thursday with the 14th pick in the NFL draft.

They need one. They always need one. For years if not decades most of Carolina’s defensive tackles have been too small, not good enough or injured. The 2013 draft is full of good defensive tackles, and one of the best should be available when the Panthers choose. A candidate is Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson, who is 6-foot-2, athletic and weighs almost 300 pounds.

Sensible and mature, however, are predictable. Steady-as-she-goes, stay-the-course, and perhaps Carolina will win eight games this season instead of six.

Another player immediately will make the offense more dynamic and effective, and he’s likely to be available at No. 14.

He is Tavon Austin, the wide receiver out of West Virginia, and if I’m the Panthers I (a) take him and (b) have a champagne glass handy. Champagne, too.

Austin is 5-foot-9, weighs 174 pounds, ran a 4.34 40 at the NFL combine and changes directions as quickly as a procrastinator changes his mind.

He caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, ran 72 times for 643 yards (not all of them against Oklahoma) and three touchdowns, and returned a punt and a kick for touchdowns.

Can you imagine pairing Austin with Steve Smith? You probably can’t because Smith has never played with a receiver as fast and as elusive as he is.

Muhsin Muhammad, who retired in 2009, was a superior runner of routes and one of the best blocking receivers in the league. But he was never a flyer.

Stick Austin in the slot and line Smith up outside. Or put Smith in the slot and Austin outside. With Austin in the huddle opponents can’t devote the attention to Smith they historically have. Defensive coordinators will have to worry about Smith, Austin, tight end Greg Olsen, and the running game, and big receiver Brandon LaFell and newcomer Domenik Hixon.

If Austin is what he appears to be, he will at least be Percy Harvin light. Seattle, the Panthers’ opponent in the 2013 season opener, gave Minnesota a first-round pick for Harvin and gave Harvin a six-year, $67 million contract.

The Vikings drafted Harvin 22nd out of Florida in 2009. In 2009 offenses had yet to figure out how to utilize smaller receivers. Turn on the TV on a Sunday afternoon and no matter which game you watch there’s a little man making an offensive coordinator look good by breaking free.

At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Harvin is bigger than Austin. He’s also more fragile. Harvin has played 16 games in only one NFL season. Austin did not miss a game at Baltimore’s Dunbar High or with the Mountaineers.

As well as the Panthers ran late last season, and as well as Cam Newton threw, the offense would not work without Smith. Smith turns 34 next month. At some point, he’s going to walk away. Who replaces him? I have a suggestion: Austin.

The offseason has been a testament to the status quo. The Panthers kept the head coach, promoted the quarterback coach to offensive coordinator and hired a general manager who made no changes to the personal department, or waves.

So make some.

Of course Carolina has greater needs than a receiver. But there’s not a roster in the NFL without flaws. Good teams compensate by imposing their strengths, their style of play. The more you score, the less fearsome your defense has to be. Defensive tackles will be available in the second round, too.

Imagine. The Panthers break huddle; Smith lines up left, Austin in the slot, Brandon LaFell right, Olsen inside.

What’s Newton doing?

He’s smiling.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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