As a result, head coach Jon Gruden and general Manager Mike Mayock selected Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs III with the No. 12 overall pick, making his the first receiver selected in 2020. However, the rookie only managed to haul in 26 receptions for 452 yards and a couple of touchdowns in year one, falling short of the No. 1 status the organization had hoped for.
Injuries and a bout a COVID-19 certainly played a factor in his lack of production as he missed three games. But, even if he did participate in all 16 contests and maintained the same pace, 32 catches and 556 yards would still fall short of what the Raiders were hoping for.
While fellow receiver Hunter Renfrow recently spoke about how the speed demon impacted the game beyond the stat sheet, Gruden recently stated that the team is looking to get Ruggs more involved in the passing game.
So, what exactly does the offensive guru have in mind for the 2020 top-pick? Could Gruden dip into the Crimson Tide’s playbook to put Ruggs in a similar role as his college days, and what would that look like?
Where a wide receiver lines up can have a direct impact on their production. Some guys are better in the slot because they have more room to operate, while others prefer to be on the outside so they can get more one-on-one matchups. Thus, this is the first place we’ll look into to compare how Ruggs was utilized.
During his sophomore and junior seasons in Tuscaloosa, Ruggs took about 18.2 percent of his snaps from the slot and 81.2 percent out wide, per Pro Football Focus. His year-to-year splits were nearly identical as well, with only a 0.4 percent increase in snaps on the inside from 2018 to 2019 and a 0.7 percent decrease on the outside. However, it was a different story in Las Vegas.
The rookie spent about 38.9 percent of his time as a slot receiver and 60.6 percent as an X or Z receiver. That’s a dramatic difference from his college days and serves as our first finding in how he was used differently.
The speed demon might be better off lining up closer to the numbers where it’s more difficult to give cornerbacks safety help.
At Alabama, Ruggs did most of his work in the medium or 10 to 19-yard range. That’s where 35 percent of his targets and 505 of his 1,470 receiving yards in 2018 and 2019 came from. With the Raiders, those numbers dropped to 20.9 percent and 111 of 452.
What’s most concerning about those figures is Ruggs’ medium-range target rate last season was his second-lowest – in terms of areas of the field - behind screens. So, Gruden and Co. essentially turned the Alabama product’s usage around 180 degrees from his college days.
Las Vegas did try to push the ball down the field more with Ruggs, as his target share on passes of 20 yards or more went from 17.1 percent in college to 34.9 percent in the pros. However, it looks like – on paper at least - those were more forced targets since he caught 47.6 percent of deep passes at ‘Bama and only 33.3 percent with the Silver and Black.
It’s also worth noting that the first-round pick only caught two passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020, compared to a combined 26 as a sophomore and junior for the Crimson Tide. For what it’s worth, his PFF grades on such receptions went from 93.0 and 70.8 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, to 61.5 as a rookie.
Look for Gruden to scale back the deep shots and try to get the ball in Ruggs’ hands on screens and in the 10 to 19-yard range more frequently this season.
Between the head coach’s comments, a lack of overall production and a few glaring differences between his college and professional utilization, it’s safe to say the Silver and Black did not use Henry Ruggs properly last season. The good news is the powers that be are seemingly assessing the situation and working towards a solution. Hopefully, that means stealing a few plays from Nick Saban’s playbook.
Look for the Raiders to use last year’s first-round pick as an outside receiver more frequently and give him more targets in the intermediate areas of the field and on screens. That combined with a full offseason should lead to more production from Ruggs in 2021 and ideally, a large step in the right direction toward him becoming the No. 1 receiver the team is looking for.