Can Henry Ruggs III assume the mantle of being the Las Vegas Raiders’ number one wide receiver next season? All signs point to this being a possibility.
When the news broke that Atlanta Falcons star Julio Jones would be traded, it didn’t take long for Raiders fans to get excited. Of course, this is all moot as Jones was eventually traded to the Tennessee Titans. This begs the question: Why were the Raiders not involved in the Julio sweepstakes? Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
An inexperienced group
In the 2020 NFL Draft, it was widely understood that the Raiders were in the wide receiver market. Luckily for them, they had their pick of the litter at the twelfth spot. In a draft historically loaded with pass catchers, the Raiders made Henry Ruggs III the selection. Later in the third round, they also took South Carolina’s, Bryan Edwards. These two young wideouts were named starters in the 2020 season, something that seems to stay the same in 2021.
Now, while the season did not go as planned for either of these rookies, battling injuries and Covid-19, they project much more favorably in 2021. This is especially true when it comes to Ruggs. While his rookie season was immensely disappointing, the flashes of game-breaking potential were evident throughout the season.
Of course, everyone knows Ruggs for his speed. A track star in high school, the Alabama product posted a 4.27 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. While this speed will always be his calling card, it has caused some misconceptions around his game. The first of which being his route running. Due to his raw speed, many consider him a straight line, downfield threat in the mold of DeSean Jackson or Will Fuller. Simply, he is much more than this.
Located at the top of the field in the above play, Ruggs shows off his route running chops. Coming in motion and running a zig route back the other way is not as easy as Ruggs makes it look, and it is evident in how badly fooled the defender assigned to him was. In the Raiders playbook, routes like these are typically reserved for Hunter Renfrow. This should not change as Renfrow dominates on these plays, they are also perfect for Ruggs in many ways. In his time at Alabama, it was rare to see “11” winning down the field. Instead, he made his hay on run after the catch plays and in the short and intermediate levels of the field.
When you possess speed like Ruggs, the defense is forced to respect it at all times. At the top of the screen, he runs a curl route to the middle of the field and which he gets good separation on. He gains this separation by putting fear into the defensive backs guarding him. As seen above, Broncos cornerback Parnell Motley literally starts sprinting down the field when he sees Ruggs threatening him. This fear of getting run past makes it easy for the rookie to put his foot in the ground and work back towards Derek Carr.
A true competitor with a role to fill
Raider Nation fell in love with Nelson Agholor last season. Somewhat lost in Agholor’s productive season, is how he was able to achieve it in the first place. Were Ruggs not to get injured in Week 1, it is likely that he would have been the one lighting up the stat sheet. However, Agholor’s success and eventual departure left the Raiders with a clear template on how to use Ruggs. Not only can he fill the Agholor role, but he can also do it even better.
While Agholor was great at stacking defenders to gain separation down the field, he struggles to make catches on the 50/50 ball. This is an area where Ruggs has him easily beat. In the above play, Ruggs makes a tremendous catch through traffic due to his strong hands, concentration, and overall competitiveness. Alas, Edwards is likely to be most featured on 50/50 balls this season, but it is certainly nice to know that Ruggs is plenty competent in this area as well.
When the Raiders’ brass asked Carr to give his opinion on the receivers in the 2020 class, he came away with Ruggs as his WR1. As a player whom Carr constantly had praised, it was surprising to see their on-field connection start so poorly. The lack of offseason time certainly plays into this, but it often seemed Carr had never played with a player of Ruggs’ speed.
Many times, especially at the beginning of the season, it seemed as if Carr just didn’t know where to place it for him. Above, Ruggs is running a deep over route where he burns the entire defense. Simply, this has to be a touchdown and it is not due to Carr poorly placing the pass. These plays happened often before Ruggs was sidelined with Covid-19 and were disappointing for Raiders fans to see. With more in-game experience and practice time on their hands, it is easy to see these kinks get ironed out. The first time these two connect on a long ball in Allegiant stadium, expect lots of noise.
While Carr certainly was reason to blame at times, Ruggs will have several things to clean up as well. The biggest being his overall awareness of the field. Several times last season the Raiders’ offense missed out on big plays entirely due to Henry Ruggs not being able to keep both feet in bounds.
While the one on Cleveland was arguably a touchdown, the point is it should not have been debatable. An NFL receiver must do a better job keeping his feet in bounds. The incompletion against the Chargers is a perfect example of how close he and Carr are, however. Despite problems over or under throwing at times, Carr delivers one of the prettiest balls of his career here. Ruggs makes a nice catch and just is not aware of his positioning on the field.
This popped up in the screen game as well. He would often turn the wrong way and miss alleys to run through. Combine this with some drop issues at times and the youngster has plenty of areas he can improve. If he does clean these areas up, the league will be put on notice.
Time to put it all together
For Ruggs, the sky is truly the limit. Just ask Carr who had this to say: “In practice, he’s the best player I’ve ever played with.” Lofty praise from a quarterback who has played with the likes of Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson, and Darren Waller. Simply, his game-breaking speed, solid route running, and competitive nature will take him as far as he wants to go. The Raiders have made one thing very clear: Ruggs is the number one wide receiver. The time is now for the young wideout, expect him to deliver.
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*Top Photo: Associated PressJohn Bazemore