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Checking in on Raiders rookie WR Henry Ruggs III at the midpoint of the season

Will Ruggs and Bryan Edwards prove to be the best receiving options the Raiders could have had?

Las Vegas Raiders v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The 2019 wide receiver class is one of the most impressive of all-time and through the first eight games of their rookie season, the leader among them in catches and targets was ... Preston Williams of the Miami Dolphins.

Williams had 32 catches on 60 targets for 428 yards, second-most among rookies behind the 458 by Terry McLaurin of the Washington Wedontcallthemthatanymores. DK Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks was third at 402 yards.

Through their team’s first eight games this season, Metcalf and McLaurin continue to dominate and they’ve taken their successes to another level with another year of experience: Metcalf has 788 yards and eight touchdowns through eight games, McLaurin has 692 and a class-leading 50 receptions despite playing with Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen and Alex Smith, who at one point seemed less likely to make a comeback than the tight end Alex Smith who retired in 2015.

There are some other receivers in the 2019 class who’ve had varying levels of success in both seasons so far, of course.

A.J. Brown of the Titans; Darius Slayton of the Giants; Marquise Brown of the Ravens; Mecole Hardman of the Chiefs; Diontae Johnson of the Steelers; Deebo Samuel of the 49ers; and of course, Hunter Renfrow. Williams went on injured reserve after eight games last season and that happened again in 2020, though he could return from his foot sprain.

There have been a couple of examples of receivers having success in year two after not doing so as rookies, including Scotty Miller of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Travis Fulgham of the Philadelphia Eagles. And then there are the potential regrets.

Not just that N’Keal Harry of the Patriots, JJ Arcega-Whiteside of the Eagles, Parris Campbell of the Colts and Andy Isabella of the Cardinals might have been poor choices in the first and second rounds, but the mounds of regret that teams like the Ravens might have for choosing Hollywood Brown — a decent player thus far — over the likes of Brown, Metcalf and McLaurin. Or the Patriots being stuck with Harry instead of those players. The Eagles taking JJAW over DKM and TMcL.

And maybe one day we’ll be talking about how every team passed on Slayton, Fulgham, Miller and Renfrow.

The good news about a loaded receiver class — especially ones that come in back-to-back years — is that you have greater odds of finding a hit. The bad news is that a moderate hit like Brown is still only a double compared to the home runs found on day two. And in the heavy passing, high-scoring world of 2020 football, ‘ships dig the long ball.

The 2020 wide receiver class was meant to be even better than the one in 2019. While last year’s crop was plenty deep and overloaded with exciting options on day two, this year’s group had three players being bandied about as top-10 picks if the draft wasn’t also top-heavy at quarterback, tackle and cornerback. The Las Vegas Raiders were on the clock after 11 players were selected and none of the choices was a wide receiver.

General manager Mike Mayock could select a wide receiver, as most expected the Raiders to do, or he could go outside of expectations and pick the best player available knowing that five, 10 or even 15 more interesting receivers could be left on the board when Las Vegas was back on the clock at 19. Mayock could even trade back (theoretically) and find ways to stockpile additional choices when the Raiders were without their next pick until 80 and 81 ... both of which were used on “wide receivers.”

Well, one wide receiver, one Miami Dolphins running back.

The decision to select Henry Ruggs III over either of those choices, as well as instead of Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb, was not an odd one. It was not a controversial one either. Some people preferred Jeudy. Some people preferred Lamb. Some people preferred Ruggs.

Perhaps there was some risk with Ruggs because he wasn’t the highly productive number one option at Alabama like Jeudy was at the same school or like Lamb was at Oklahoma, but every draft pick carries different risks. Jeudy and Lamb will never have the physical attributes that Ruggs does and that may yet prove to matter.

It just hasn’t proven to matter yet.

If Mayock has screwed up anywhere in the 2020 draft — and I’m not saying that he has because it’s only been a half of one rookie season, which is why I wanted to start out by highlighting the midway point for the 2019 class — it is not necessarily with the selection of Ruggs but the miscalculation of either where the receiver talent would be available in the draft or his own ability to find the sleepers.

Between Denzel Mims at pick 59 and Gabe Davis at pick 128, the only wide receivers selected were Bryan Edwards by Mayock and Devin Duvernay, who went to Baltimore. Mayock also chose Lynn Bowden, Jr., but he was placed at running back and then he was placed on the trade block. Edwards had a fantastic training camp and was off to a fine start before foot and shoulder injuries pushed him off the field, returning last week to play one snap against the LA Chargers, but what other options existed to Mayock now that we’ve seen a half-season from this rookie class?

The most obvious “What if?” scenario has to involve tackle Tristan Wirfs. Just Blog Baby compared him to “absolute monster of a man” Trent Brown after his dominant combine performance. How great would it have been for the Raiders to have a Trent Brown clone who above all else is not Trent Brown? Wirfs was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers one pick after Las Vegas selected Ruggs and he’s been called a potential Pro Bowl player in his first NFL season.

Making this choice of course means that the Raiders would still need to pick a receiver, something Mayock clearly wasn’t going to leave the draft without doing at least twice.

Midway through 2020, Ruggs ranks 10th among rookie receivers in yards, having played in six of a possible eight games. He has 10 catches for 220 yards, displaying the same low-volume, high-yardage-per-catch output he had with the Crimson Tide.

Comparatively, Jeudy has caught 30 passes for 484 yards with the Denver Broncos and Lamb has caught 44 passes for 595 yards with the Dallas Cowboys; unsurprisingly, Lamb has caught only eight of 17 passes for 98 yards in the last three games and is less productive without Dak Prescott as his quarterback. Lamb is not the most productive rookie though.

That belongs to Justin Jefferson of the Vikings, who has caught 34 passes for 627 yards and ranks first in both DVOA and DYAR at FootballOutsiders. Not among rookies, but among all receivers. Jefferson went 22nd in the draft and would have been available at 19 if the Raiders had opted to go in another direction at pick 12. Or if they wanted to double down on receivers in the first round, since the selection of Edwards clearly indicates that the position was that important to Mayock and Jon Gruden.

Those aren’t the only four rookie receivers of note either.

Tee Higgins of the Bengals has 33 catches for 488 yards and he’s become more dominant over the last five games (413 yards in that stretch); Chase Claypool of the Steelers has 31 catches for 444 yards and seven total touchdowns; Brandon Aiyuk of the 49ers has 371 yards, including 206 in the last two weeks; Darnell Mooney of the Bears, Laviska Shenault of the Jaguars and Davis with the Bills have also all topped 275 yards thus far and have proven to be dependable, interesting prospects.

The challenge for Mayock and Gruden won’t be to justify the Ruggs and Damon Arnette and Bryan Edwards picks based only on what they end up doing (the Bowden pick has already been called “unjustified,” though maybe you don’t feel that way), but also based on what the other options they could have had end up doing relative to those players.

It is also relative to where the Raiders’ issues and roster holes will be popping up and their decision to pass on players like Wirfs.

Since Ruggs returned from an injury in Week 5 to put up 118 yards (on two catches) in a win against the Chiefs, prompting Gruden to say “Well, yeah, we did not bring him in here to run hitch routes” and that Ruggs was a “great route runner” who needed to get the ball more, he’s been targeted a total of 10 times, catching four passes for 43 yards and no touchdowns. He also has three carries for 21 yards. Las Vegas has scored an average of 22 points per game in that stretch but has managed to pull out a 2-1 record from those games.

Ruggs caught zero of his three targets against the Chargers in Week 9.

It was hard to find comparisons to Ruggs in the 2020 draft and it is hard to find comparisons for him in NFL history, which is what makes him the most exciting theoretical receiver prospect in the class (which continues to be true today), but the closest that people have mentioned is Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs did not extract much yardage value out of Hill over his first six career games, but it is worth comparing him to Ruggs, who is also one year younger than Hill was in 2016.

Hill caught 14 of 17 targets for 125 yards over his first six games in the NFL. He was playing with Alex Smith (the quarterback, not the retired tight end) and only averaged 7.3 yards per target and 8.9 yards per catch. However, he also scored three touchdowns and was returning kickoffs and punts.

Over the final 10 games of his rookie season, Hill caught 47 of 66 targets for 468 yards and carried the ball 19 times for 250 rushing yards, scoring a total of six touchdowns.

Though I do not have Hill’s average depth of target from his rookie season, those numbers begin to show up on Pro-Football-Reference in 2018, I would be surprised if it comes close to the 19.8 ADOT that Ruggs has on his first 21 targets. Kansas City was putting the ball in Hill’s hands and Smith was rarely passing deep to Hill.

According to P-F-R, Smith was 4 of 13 on deep passes to Hill and backup Nick Foles was 2 of 2. That’s 15 total deep passes to Hill over 16 games.

Through six games together, Derek Carr is three of 10 on deep passes to Ruggs. That does mean that Carr has completed three deep passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. It also means that he’s missed seven deep passes to Ruggs.

And by the way, six of Ruggs’ 10 catches have gone for six or fewer yards. It’s been a battle of “all or nothing” with this particular pick as opposed to Las Vegas going for a wide receiver like Jeudy, Lamb, Jefferson, Higgins, Claypool or Aiyuk, who have been regularly targeted options already.

The Raiders are on pace to be led in receiving by tight end Darren Waller (who has 50 catches for only 394 yards in eight games) and then Renfrow, who has 27 catches for 369 and two touchdowns. Nelson Agholor has 17 catches for 347 yards, giving Las Vegas the deep play threat that they assumed Ruggs needed to be; Carr is six of eight on deep passes to Agholor, including four touchdowns.

It doesn’t quite make sense yet how Gruden is utilizing Ruggs; they’re using him like a veteran Tyreek Hill without feeding him the ball similar to how the Chiefs did with a rookie Tyreek Hill.

It doesn’t quite make sense yet why Ruggs was drafted as a complementary receiver to a number one option (such as Courtland Sutton in Denver, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in Tennessee, Adam Thielen in Minnesota) when the Raiders were still looking for a number one option who may have more fit the mold of Jeudy, Lamb and Jefferson.

It doesn’t quite make sense yet why Mayock would choose this draft, of all drafts, to prioritize a wide receiver instead of another position when we knew that the next eight or nine receivers off the board would also have number one upside. Is it really as simple as “New city, same need for speed”?

As it stands today, Jefferson, Lamb, Higgins and Jeudy all have more yards through nine weeks than any rookie receiver in 2019 and as you see, that is a talented group. Claypool would have more than all but McLaurin, who only had a few more yards through eight games. Even Aiyuk would rank highly and he’s only played in seven games.

The world knew right away with McLaurin and Metcalf and Brown. We seem to know right away with a number of rookies this season too. But Ruggs is not that far off the pace from some 2018 rookies, including D.J. Chark (who had 159 yards in his first eight games) and D.J. Moore (who had 297). Not every explosive players booms in his first season and Edwards too may prove to be better than many of the receivers selected ahead of him.

As the top receiver on the board, it is impossible for Ruggs to do that. Instead, he has to be better than the receivers draft behind him. The pressure to live up to those expectations may fall more on Mayock’s shoulders than on Ruggs’.