Last year, Jon Gruden drafted his version of Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill in Henry Ruggs III and misused him for most of the 2020 season.
At Alabama, Henry Ruggs III became a dynamic playmaker most known for his blazing 4.27 40-yard speed and reliable hands. According to Pro Football Focus, the quick-twitch wideout only dropped three passes out of 123 targets between his sophomore and junior collegiate terms.
With the ability to turn a 10-yard reception into a 40-yard gain because of his ability to outrun defenders, Henry Ruggs III fits with the Las Vegas Raiders offense, playing alongside quarterback Derek Carr, who can poke holes in defenses with high-percentage short-to-intermediate throws.
While Carr may frustrate his critics with check-downs, he could connect with Ruggs on slants, shallow crossers and throws to the flat for chunk yardage because of the receiver’s ability to make defenders miss in open space.
Gruden lost sight of what made Henry Ruggs III dangerous on the collegiate level, or he just didn’t trust him to execute at an optimal level because of his leg injury early in the season.
However, Gruden took the comparisons between Ruggs and Hill too far. Rather than feature Ruggs in the short passing game at a high frequency, the Raiders inconsistently used him as a deep threat.
In 2020, Henry Ruggs III converted 43 targets into 26 receptions for 452 yards and two touchdowns. For comparison, fellow first-round wideouts (also selected in the top 20) Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb saw 113 and 111 targets with the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.
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In last year’s season opener, Ruggs suffered a lower-leg injury and missed three games, but still, the Raiders targeted him no more than five times in any game last season. That’s inexcusable, especially when you realize 25 running backs saw more targets than him. For most of the year, he played the role of a decoy to open up the field for other pass-catchers. While that’s valuable to an aerial attack, the 12th overall pick should have a much bigger contribution on offense.
Ruggs had to work on the technical and physical aspects of his game during the offseason in order to carve out a bigger role this year. General manager Mike Mayock listed four areas of focus.
Ruggs gained 13 pounds, and Gruden says he “looks much better” compared to his rookie campaign. Yet that only solves half the problem. In order for the young wideout to reach his full potential, the Raiders have to remember what made him an electric threat on the collegiate level.
Gruden doesn’t have to give up on the deep bombs downfield. Carr tossed up some well-placed balls and allowed Ruggs to use his leaping ability to haul in some spectacular passes. Most notably, the Alabama product had a huge impact on the Raiders’ win over the Chiefs in Week 5 last season.
Yet Ruggs’ average depth of target listed at 17.4 yards last season—a lot higher than his ADOT during his time at Alabama, per Dan Pizzuta, who writes for Sharp Football Analysis.
“Despite Ruggs’s speed, he wasn’t completely a deep threat during his time at Alabama. During the 2019 season, just 33% of Ruggs’s routes were deep, according to Sports Info Solutions, and his 11.1-yard average depth of target was around average for the 2020 draft class…At Alabama, Ruggs was best used in space on short and intermediate targets. In 2019, 56.5% of his receiving yards came after the catch. In 2018, that was 63%. That figure was 31.2% in 2020 with the Raiders.”
Gruden lost sight of what made Henry Ruggs III dangerous on the collegiate level, or he just didn’t trust him to execute at an optimal level because of his leg injury early in the season. In 2021, the Raiders should find more ways to isolate the receiver in space and allow him to beat defenders on foot.
Forget the similarities to Hill and let Ruggs do what he does best after the catch.
Though tight end Darren Waller will garner most of the targets, Ruggs can become a consistent No. 2 option in the passing game. With more looks on basic pitch-and-catch plays, he can eclipse 1,000 receiving yards averaging 60 yards per game.
Henry Ruggs III has big-play ability, but that’s not his strong suit. He’ll force safeties to respect the threat over the top, but that’s only part of what makes him a special receiver. If used properly, he can become a reliable quick outlet for Carr, especially when the pocket collapses on the edges.
When Ruggs has the ball in his hands, he’s a matchup nightmare. Speed kills on the football field, but you must give it room to inflict maximum damage.
Maurice Moton covers the Raiders for Vegas Sports Today and is the co-host of Silver and Black Tonight every Friday at 6 pm PT on The Mightier 1090 in Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.