When a team drafts a player in the first round of the NFL draft, the expectation is that the player will be a top-level starter at their position and a cornerstone the franchise can build around for the foreseeable future. Whether or not the coaches or personnel staff say it openly, the expectation is that this player will come in as a rookie and be able to contribute and help the team in some shape or form. There is a lot of pressure on first-round rookies to live up to their early-round pedigree, and oftentimes these players will lose confidence in their abilities if they don’t see success early on in their rookie campaigns.
It is important for the staff to find a balance in expecting production from their first-round pick but also not damaging their confidence with criticism when they don’t produce at the level the team might have hoped. We rarely see coaches or general managers be overly critical of their first-round picks as they don’t want to hurt the confidence of their player as they continue to develop and find their footing in the NFL.
The Las Vegas Raiders had two first-round rookies play significant roles last season and both left their staff and fans wanting more. The Raiders selected wide receiver Henry Ruggs III with the 12th overall pick, making him the first receiver off the board. The team then went ahead and drafted Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette with their 19th overall pick, a move that surprised many on draft night. Both players had their fair share of positive moments as rookies, but for the most part were disappointing. Speaking with the media last week, general manager Mike Mayock admitted that he was “disappointed in the productivity from our rookies” and while he didn’t specifically call out his first two picks, considering they didn’t even have a second-round pick, it isn’t a mystery that the main source of his disappointment stems from his first-round selections.
The comments Mayock made drew a lot of attention around the NFL media, and led many to believe that he was specifically referring to Henry Ruggs III. Mayock did add in that same interview that he wasn’t disappointed in Ruggs, just that he believes that Ruggs needs to “get better.” Ruggs' lack of production his rookie season has been a hot topic amongst Raiders fans and is disappointing for many reasons.
The Raiders were expected to compete and make the playoffs this season and that was largely due to the addition of Ruggs. The team hadn’t had a true No. 1 receiver since they traded Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys and many thought that with Josh Jacobs at running back and Darren Waller at tight end, all that was missing was a go-to No. 1 option at receiver. Ruggs was supposed to be that guy, but the fact of that matter is he was anything but.
Ruggs' disappointing season is compounded by the fact that he was the first receiver drafted in a potentially all-time great receiver class. Ruggs finished his rookie season with a modest 26 receptions for 452 yards and just two touchdowns. Compared to the other rookie receivers this season, Ruggs ranked 14th in receptions, 11th in receiving yards, and 12th in touchdown receptions. When you consider that Mayock drafted Ruggs over the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Justin Jefferson, and Brandon Ayuik, all of whom greatly out produced Ruggs, it's easy to see why he may be disappointed in his first-round pick, even if he didn’t flat-out say it.
Now, of course, hindsight is 20/20 and it's easy to sit here and say that the Raiders should have drafted Jefferson, who had one of the best seasons as a rookie wide receiver in NFL history, over Ruggs, but I’d be willing to bet that there wasn’t a single NFL team who had Jefferson over Ruggs on their board heading into the draft. Ruggs was a top prospect for a reason, he has rare speed, a trait that cannot be coached. And the thing with Ruggs is that he wasn’t your typical speed receiver.
At Alabama, Ruggs won in a variety of ways. Yes, he could beat you deep, but he was also a threat in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. He has elite quickness and separation skills and is dynamic as a runner after the catch. Alabama consistently used Ruggs on quick-hitting receiver screens, slants, and in-breaking routes. He displayed fantastic ball skills, and even though he isn’t the biggest receiver, he showed a great ability to climb the ladder and high point the ball in 50/50 situations. Ruggs may not have been the No. 1 receiver on most evaluators' boards, but he was certainly in that conversation.
All of this being said, there is little doubt that the Raiders expect a big jump in production in Ruggs' sophomore season—and based on who the Raiders are set to lose in free agency, it’s crucial that Ruggs delivers. Fellow wide receiver Nelson Agholor is set to be an unrestricted free agent this season and after his big year with the Raiders he may have priced himself out of a return to the Silver and Black. The team could also look to move on from Tyrell Williams, who can’t seem to stay healthy after signing a big contract in 2019. If Agholor and Williams don’t return to the Raiders, then they will need Ruggs to really live up to being a high first-round pick.
The question here is: Was Ruggs' disappointing rookie season mainly due to him as a player or the way he was used? If it's the latter, then the Raiders can simply adjust and put him in better situations to succeed.
I believe Ruggs' poor rookie season was due to a mix of factors, and luckily for the Raiders, most of them can be fixed. First and foremost, Ruggs dealt with lingering lower-body injuries which clearly bothered him all season. He missed three games throughout the course of the year and based on tape study, it appeared he never had that same burst and explosion he showed while at Alabama. Assuming Ruggs regains that explosion once he returns healthy next season, I expect him to be able to separate and beat defenders at a higher rate.
I also found in my tape study was that he and quarterback Derek Carr clearly didn’t have a connection. There were multiple times throughout the year that Ruggs had his defender beat but Carr overthrew him or put the ball in a place that Ruggs wasn’t expecting. This can be easily attributed to a shortened offseason program due to COVID-19, or Ruggs being in and out of the lineup and practice due to injury. Whatever the reason the two weren’t in sync, it’s clear that they need to spend a lot of time this offseason getting on the same page.
Playcalling-wise, the Raiders did Ruggs few favors. Head coach Jon Gruden treated Ruggs like he was a situational deep threat and showed a surprising lack of creativity and confidence in their top pick. Week to week it became painfully obvious how the Raiders would use Ruggs. They’d send him on deep patterns stretching the field for the team’s other weapons, and then take a token deep shot to him to keep the defense honest. Rarely did we see Ruggs run any in-breaking routes at the short and intermediate levels of the field, and we also didn’t see a lot of quick tunnel screens to him as well. How can we expect Ruggs to produce like a WR1 when his coaching staff didn’t treat him like one? In the 13 games that Ruggs played this season, he never had more than five targets in any game. For context, Jefferson had seven games where he was targeted 10-plus times.
Ruggs isn’t a perfect player by any means, and some of his struggles were on him. Ruggs did seem to struggle with bigger, more physical defensive backs off the line and when they were able to get hands on him early, it was tough for him to separate. This was a knock on Ruggs coming out of Alabama, but it is something he can improve on. Adding play strength to be able to play through a jam, and spending time perfecting his releases will go a long way here. Additionally, Ruggs did show a case of the drops, something that is surprising as he was sure-handed at Alabama. The drop issues are correctable as well and if Ruggs puts in the time this offseason, he should be better in that department.
The talent is there for Ruggs to play well and produce at the level that the Raiders front office, the fans, and more importantly he himself expects. Mayock said that Ruggs needs to get better, and I believe that he will.