The 2021 free-agent wide receiver class is packed with talent, with Juju Smith being the most polarizing name of the bunch. The Las Vegas Raiders need a true number-one wide receiver but Smith-Schuster might not be the answer.
As it stands, the Raiders currently only have three wideouts under contract for 2021, Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, and Hunter Renfrow. None of those three have the skill set to be a number-one receiver. Renfrow usually saw the field on third-down sets from the slot position. Meanwhile, Edwards was a third-round project pick who didn’t see a lot of playing time in 2020.
The Raiders took Ruggs at 12 overall last year with the hopes he would eventually assume that mantle. Unfortunately, he isn’t quite ready for that responsibility just yet. This would mean the Raiders would need to bring a player who can fill that role until Ruggs is ready.
Nelson Agholor was a bright spot in 2020
Throughout the 2020 season, Nelson Agholor did his best to fill that number-one role. After developing a strong rapport with quarterback Derek Carr, he played a major role in the passing game. The former first-round selection led all Raiders receivers in targets, yards, and touchdowns last season. Renfrow actually led the pack in receptions. However, Agholor’s 896 receiving yards were good for only 29th in the league and his eight touchdowns managed a tie for eighth-best.
According to Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Agholor remains a priority, but anything is possible in free agency so the Raiders have to be flexible.” Agholor returning would be a big boost for the Raiders’ offense. Another year in the system and more chemistry with Carr could help him fill the number one spot. However, his return is not a sure thing.
A recurring problem
The lack of a true number one has been a problem for the Raiders since the trade of Amari Cooper in 2018. In 2019 the Raiders tried to fill that role with Antonio Brown but that ended in disaster. Last year, Las Vegas projected Tyrell Williams would step into those shoes but he missed the entire season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. With Williams being released, the Raiders’ woes will continue.
The Raiders have not had a receiver eclipse the 1,000-yard mark since 2016 when they had two do it. Darren Waller passed that mark the last two seasons but he plays tight end. Having a reliable threat on the outside could open up more for the offense. It could also help solve some of the red zone issues.
Can Juju Smith-Schuster be a number one for the Raiders?
The Raiders have been rumored to be interested in Juju Smith-Schuster. While nothing has come out of neither’s camp, the speculation makes sense. Raiders need a number one and Smith-Schuster has been that guy before. However, it might not be the best fit. The USC product has only surpassed a 1,000-yard season once in his career, even though he got close his rookie year with 917. Also, he has never caught more than nine touchdowns. It’s possible a drop in production could be related to the Ben Roethlisberger injury in 2019.
That year the Steelers had a revolving door of inexperienced quarterbacks manning the helm. Although it’s worth questioning if the departure of Antonio Brown played a factor, both of Smith-Schuster’s most productive seasons came when Brown was the centerpiece of the offense.
Teams would often have their best defender shadow Brown all game. This allowed Smith-Schuster to get and eventually win several matchups against weaker defenders. All this would point to the USC product benefitting more in a system with an already established threat.
The cost might be the deciding factor
While Smith-Schuster had a decent season, it wasn’t all that much better than Agholor’s. In fact, Agholor only had 65 fewer yards and one less touchdown. Smith-Schuster also had about 40 more targets and double the receptions, indicating Agholor is the better deep threat.
PFF predicts that Smith-Schuster lands with the Jets on a four-year $68 million deal. If those numbers come true that alone should knock the Raiders out of the race. Within that same article, they say Agholor could come back to Las Vegas on a two-year $15 million deal. That would be a more reasonable and plausible deal as the Raiders are tight in cap space.
Raiders should allow Ruggs to develop
It is unfair to make convictions about a player based on their rookie year, especially after one like Ruggs had. The Raiders must have seen something special if they took him at number 12 overall. Allowing him to develop is the best option long-term for the Raiders. Bringing back Agholor makes the most sense.
The Raiders currently have a major discrepancy in spending between the offense and defense. Spending $17 million a year receiver would only widen this gap. In turn, this would only exacerbate the current issues they have. While it remains to be seen what the final figures are, the Raiders are probably better off without Smith-Schuster.
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