When Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock blasted the team’s 2020 rookie class’ lack of productivity, one first-round pick took it to heart.
Mayock has since doubled down on his previous criticism, this time adding a layer of hopeful optimism.
“I made a comment a couple months ago about Ruggs and about that whole class last year needing to step up this year and I still believe that,” he said recently. “And from Ruggs’ perspective, the sky is the limit for this kid. We knew exactly what he was and that’s who he is. We had no surprises last year on Ruggs. Now, he needs to take it to the next level too, the next level up.”
Sure, Henry Ruggs III had a disappointing showing in his first season, but the No. 12 pick of the 2020 NFL Draft is resetting his own expectations for the upcoming season; in turn, Ruggs is now poised to compete to be the Raiders’ top wide receiver for quarterback Derek Carr.
Ruggs has the speed; that was his calling card out of Alabama. His 4.27-second 40-yard dash left head coach Jon Gruden wanting more, and when he selected Ruggs just outside of the top 10, Gruden planned to use that speed to his advantage. Ruggs was going to play in the mold of Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, another super speedy pass-catcher who successfully stretches the field for quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Gruden’s original vision never came to fruition; and Ruggs’ rookie season pales in comparison to others from his draft class, including All-Pro Justin Jefferson (Minnesota Vikings), CeeDee Lamb (Dallas Cowboys), and former Alabama teammate Jerry Jeudy (Denver Broncos).
The Raiders were uncreative with Ruggs last season, and while it’s unclear how he will be used in 2021, there’ll be a need for a successful sophomore campaign with last year’s leading receiver, Nelson Agholor, now gone.
“The biggest thing is probably consistency,” Ruggs said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “That thing that I try to harp on and playing at my top speed all the time and recognizing the different things on the field. So mentally it’s watching a lot more film, doing a lot more studying. Of course, the physical stuff has to come because it’s a grown man’s game. I have to get bigger, have to get stronger. But mostly the consistency and the mental side of the game.”
Ruggs will make up a receiving corps with reliable pass-catching tight end Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, who Las Vegas utilizes frequently in third-down situations. Ruggs will see an obvious uptick in snaps; he only played just over 50% of the team’s snaps last season in 13 games. Ruggs battled knee and hamstring injuries that caused him to miss playing time and spent time on the COVID-19/reserve list, but when he was on the field, he was underutilized, especially as a deep threat. As the Raiders were getting ready to close out their season, with only their Week 17 matchup left, Ruggs had only five deep targets, per Pro Football Focus.
All and all, Ruggs finished the 2020 season with 26 catches for 452 yards and two touchdowns. Ruggs will need to improve on his route-running, but now that he’s through the learning curve and better adjusted to NFL speed and size, he’ll be able to polish those skills and his ability to quickly and effectively get off the line of scrimmage against multiple coverages. These improvements paired with better game planning will aid Ruggs’ development in Year 2.
NBC Sports’ Josh Schrock detailed Las Vegas’ inability to properly deploy its most elusive pass-catcher, highlighting the Week 16 loss to the Miami Dolphins as one of the gravest examples.
“Ruggs was supposed to feast on slants. No quarterback has more completions on slant routes than Carr since Gruden took over. Carr also ranks third in rating on slants in that period. In 2019 at Alabama, Ruggs caught three touchdown passes on slants, using his elite speed to turn a moderate gain into an explosive play. This season, Ruggs has zero catches on two targets when running a slant.”
It’s going to be a telling season for Raiders’ brass. After Gruden’s bank-breaking contract and the team’s inability to break its postseason drought, there’ll be pressure on the offense to perform with the likes of divisional foes Kansas City, the Los Angeles Chargers, and Denver Broncos. Las Vegas was able to get to .500 for the first time since the 2016 season and have the influx of young talent to sustain success; the Raiders just need to find it first. Ruggs and company, including Waller, are seemingly confident he’s made the necessary steps in his development to take on a larger, more productive role in 2021.
“I am still very impressed with Henry,” Waller said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “The production may not have been there in people’s eyes but I’m more impressed by his maturity. His mental approach. Because there were a lot of things that didn’t go his way and it’s something he’s not used to. He’s used to being a key weapon on a winning team and things kind of changed for him coming in. I felt like he dealt with it well. I don’t think he’s blamed anyone else or made any excuses. He’s accepted it for what it is and he’s a guy who I know is going to come into next season with a great attitude and just continue to improve. I like having Henry Ruggs on my team.”