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Raiders can ease their need for a receiver with internal options

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Vegas may target a receiver in round one, but Hunter Renfrow is poised for a breakout from the slot

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Las Vegas Raiders have a need at receiver and thankfully this is highlighted by the fact that they actually have a pretty solid and set-in-clay offense already. We know that the offensive line doesn’t need a new starter yet. We know that the tight end and running back positions are manned by two of the best young weapons in the game. If you’re willing to skip the debate on Derek Carr — and you best be damn sure that I am willing right now — then it only leaves one thing to be desired.

At a time when it seems like most teams have at least two thrilling receivers, the Raiders have none. Or so it probably looks based solely on 2019’s stats and looking at other people’s papers instead of your own.

In the AFC West alone you’ve got Courtland Sutton, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Tyreek Hill, and Sammy Watkins, though the latter is likely going to be set free from his massive 2020 contract agreement. There are enough teams with needs at the position to probably guarantee that at least 20 of them will be drafted on days and two, and I’d be shocked if Mike Mayock doesn’t grab a minimum of one of those. Zay Jones and Keelan Doss can’t be the only ones competing opposite of Tyrell Williams, and Williams shouldn’t be the projected future at WR1.

However, in the modern NFL offense we also know that teams are going to be much more creative than simply targeting the X and Z. And the Raiders do have good, intriguing options outside of X and Z. That’s where those day one and day two needs become a little less pressing, especially in regards to trying and improve the receiver options for 2020, which Mayock and Jon Gruden would prefer not to have to rely on when it comes to rookies.

Instead they may need to lean heavier on Hunter Renfrow.

Looking at Derek Carr’s two seasons under Gruden and offensive coordinator Greg Olson, he has attempted an average of 533 passes per year. This falls in line with his previous four years and is probably a reasonable expectations for the number of throws moving forward, whether the Raiders are winning or losing. You don’t need to throw more to win more — Patrick Mahomes threw 484 passes last season in 14 games. Jimmy Garoppolo threw 476. Russell Wilson threw 516.

Carr — or any QB under center for Vegas — can probably expect to throw something like 515 passes next season and that would be fine. Great maybe! It’s just a number and now we know there are 515 targets to go around.

Darren Waller led the team with 117 targets and only two tight end had more: Travis Kelce at 136 and Zach Ertz at 135. Because Waller had only received 29 targets over his first three seasons, it’s difficult to project where he’s going to go from here, but I think projecting 120 targets is more than reasonable. That leaves 395.

At the combine, Mayock said that running back Josh Jacobs “can catch the football” and that the challenge in year two would be “developing those talents.” If Jacobs can prove to be an adequate pass protector, then look for him to increase his targets immensely. Jacobs caught 20 of 27 passes as a rookie over 13 games, giving him a full season pace closer to 35 targets. Whether or not Jacobs actually becomes that much of a dual threat remains to be seen because he’s so young and clearly not even Mayock and Gruden know if he can do that, but doubling his targets seems more to fair.

Consider that Leonard Fournette was targeted 100 times last season, Le’Veon Bell 78, Devonta Freeman 70, Aaron Jones 36, Miles Sanders even took in 63 targets, amid the usual suspects like Saquon Barkley, Zeke Elliott, Dalvin Cook. Jacobs is a running back of the highest ilk potentially, so projecting him to 70 targets in 2020 might even be modest. But let’s do that: 70 targets to Jacobs.

That leaves 325.

However, more targets to Jacobs could mean fewer to Jalen Richard, while DeAndre Washington is a free agent. Richard and Washington had 84 combined targets last season. Let’s say for now that 40 targets go to backup running backs, whoever they are.

That leaves 285.

Tyrell Williams was signed to a contract big enough to at least keep him around as a receiver in 2020 and with the hope that he’ll be healthy, play in 16 games, and provide the speed to “stretch the field” and open things up locally for Carr with Waller and Jacobs. That didn’t happen last season in part due to injuries, but still 64 targets went to Williams over 14 games. Ideally speaking, maybe Williams sees 80 targets, which wouldn’t be bad at all if he kept up his 10.2 yards per target average from 2019.

That leaves 205.

Next we have to hit some incidentals. Foster Moreau caught 21 of 25 targets as a rookie and he scored five times. That’s amazing. He doesn’t appear to just be a blocking tight end and I would imagine he’s earned some increased love from Gruden, Olson, and the QB of choice. Without putting too much pressure on Moreau in year two, why not 40 targets?

That leaves 165.

That leaves enough for me to talk about Hunter Renfrow again finally.

Renfrow was second on the team in targets, catching 49 of 71 for 605 yards, four touchdowns, 8.5 yards per target, and a catch rate of 69%. Over at FootballOutsiders, Renfrow ranked 38th in DYAR and 27th in DVOA — Seattle Seahawks rookie D.K. Metcalf was 39th in DYAR and 44th in DVOA. Renfrow also ranked ahead of Adam Thielen, Hollywood Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, Robert Woods, Odell Beckham, T.Y. Hilton, Julian Edelman, and plenty of others in DYAR. He outpaced Deebo Samuel, Cooper Kupp, Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins, Jarvis Landry, and a lot more for DVOA.

This is not to say that Renfrow is a better receiver than those players or even that he had a better season than most of them but it should highlight the fact that Las Vegas’s need for an outside receiver has nothing to do with the fact that they might have a budding star in the slot.

And many teams these days are doing well with their best receivers coming in the slot, tight end, and running back.

At 5’10, 184 lbs, Renfrow was among a handful of receivers at the combine under 5’11, and eventually he became one of five of those players to be drafted. Potentially in part due to his slow 40-yard dash — 4.59 seconds — Renfrow was also the last of those five to be drafted, as Hollywood Brown went in the first, Mecole Hardman and Andy Isabella went in the second, and Diontae Johnson went in the third.

Isabella ran a 4.31 and outmatched Renfrow in all categories except 3 cone.

Brown couldn’t run the 40 at the combine, but was thought to also be in the low 4.3s. Hardman ran a 4.33, but didn’t run the 3 cone. Johnson ran a 4.53 and a 7.09 in the 3 cone. It was hard to see Renfrow stand out in any way if you were just focused on combine numbers or his modest production at Clemson, but he did do one thing right, running a 6.8 in the 3 cone drill.

Only Miles Boykin (6.77, 3rd round pick by Baltimore) and Stanley Morgan (6.78, but apparently not a good enough investment for a draft pick) were faster. Maybe it’s not everything, but it was something, and looking back there are a few other comparable receivers of note.

Narrowing my focus to players who measured between 5’9 and 5’11, and between 180-190 lbs, only 14 receivers have had a faster 3 cone at the combine than Renfrow. Those players include five players who I would say had no notable impact on the professional level, plus a few guys who got drafted and didn’t pan out, or just topped out at mediocrity. (Former Raiders third rounder Johnnie Lee Higgins is in there.)

Also in there: Emmanuel Sanders and Brandin Cooks. Both of those players again have better straight line speed than Renfrow, as many NFL receivers do, but that didn’t stop him from being adequately productive as a rookie without many other players at his position on the roster to draw attention from him. Also consider these players:

Danny Amendola is the same height and weight as Renfrow, ran a 4.58, and a 6.81 in the 3 cone. They’re practically twins.

Tyler Lockett is the same height and weight as Renfrow, ran a 4.4, and a 6.89 in the 3 cone. They aren’t twins, but they’re not far off.

Antonio Brown is the same height and weight as Renfrow, ran a 4.56, and a 6.98 in the 3 cone. I’m sorry, but I had to mention that.

There are plenty of comparisons to be made that would make you shy away from a receiver of Renfrow’s size and agility but also a notable number of star receivers who have proven that a “Hunter Renfrow” can succeed at this level and at a very productive clip. Not in spite of playing in the slot, but maybe because of it.

Among the NFL’s most targeted players out of the slot last season were:

Julian Edelman (101 targets)

Cooper Kupp (99)

Tyler Boyd (88)

Jamison Crowder (88)

Larry Fitzgerald (86)

Jarvis Landry (78)

Dede Westbrook (75)

Tyler Lockett (74)

Danny Amendola (72)

Cole Beasley (72)

Keenan Allen (71)

Randall Cobb (70)

Chris Godwin (68)

Yes Godwin, who broke out for 86 catches and 1,333 yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, did most of his damage from the slot. In fact, Michael Thomas, the NFL’s best receiver, was targeted 64 times out of the slot, catching 52 passes for 601 yards. Kupp, Godwin, Boyd, Lockett, Edelman, Randall Cobb, Landry, Fitzgerald, Crowder, and Thomas all had at least 600 yards from the slot in 2019.

I see no reason to believe that Renfrow, who caught 33 of 42 passes for 367 yards out of the slot as a rookie, couldn’t join them next year. He’s already proved a lot of doubters wrong and a lot of believers right.

Godwin went from 55 targets as a rookie to 95 targets in year two to 121 targets last season. Kupp had 94 targets as a rookie and was on pace for 110 in year two before an injury, then had 134 last season. Edelman has averaged about 150 targets per year over the last six years in an offense that rarely features a notable X or Y receiver, winning three Super Bowls. Landry is a 150-target player as well. Crowder had 78 targets as a rookie, 99 in year two, and 103 in year three. In his first season with the New York Jets last year, Crowder had 122 targets. Lockett averaged 70 targets per year in his first four seasons, then in the first year without Doug Baldwin, Lockett had 110, primarily in the slot.

There’s no reason to believe that Renfrow can’t be a 100 target player in 2020.

If that’s the case, it only leaves the 65 incidental targets that go to Zay Jones, Keelan Doss, Derek Carrier, and that type of player. In fact, I would say that if the Raiders draft a receiver in the first round, it might not be reasonable to expect more than 50 targets going to him unless it is because of injuries — which is reasonable and of course, I can’t account all these targets accurately because inevitably some of these players will miss games — or flat out beating Williams for the attention of the QB and Gruden.

A large part of that could be a breakout campaign for Renfrow, in addition to the extra targets that head to Jacobs. This doesn’t mean that Vegas should take Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb off of their draft board. Not at all. Tyrell Williams is at best probably going to complement Waller, Jacobs, and Renfrow, while Jeudy or Lamb or (fill in your favorite) could change the offense again in 2021. Maybe sooner but that’s not the direction that Gruden or Mayock intend to rely on. The Raiders can’t expect to get immediately better because a 21-year-old who was playing against NCAA competition last season comes in and grabs all the attention of opposing defenses. It rarely happens that way, even for the best. Many of the best receivers get off to rather modest beginnings.

Renfrow had more than a modest beginning. We can’t rule out that he’s got much more in store and that should somewhat alleviate any thoughts of receiver being a dire need early. It’s a need, but you could paint an accurate picture of what the offense would look like today and we haven’t even hit free agency yet.