Will Henry Ruggs Start In The Slot? How Will Raiders Align Their WRs?

Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Time passes at odd speeds during the pandemic and social isolation, but even the average summer grew tedious through June and into July, until training camps ramped up and foretold the oncoming NFL season. This year’s unique circumstances demonstrates just how much I cling to those stupid little nuggets from install or 10-10-10 days—they just mean that football is coming.

In their place, we have hypothetical nuggets—not from the observations of beat reporters, but rather directly from the untrustworthy horse’s mouth of NFL coaches and coordinators. One such nugget came earlier this week, when Las Vegas Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson shared this quote about the development of his rookie receivers Bryan Edwards and Henry Ruggs III.

"[Edwards] is multiple. These guys—that's the one thing—Henry Ruggs, we moved him at the Z, but both of them have shown with what we've done in the last couple of days that they're very intelligent players. That's a huge plus for what we want to do offensively. We've asked him to move—we like him as a big guy outside, don't get me wrong—I think he's going to develop into a [great receiver] outside, but he's shown the intelligence to move inside and also the savviness as a route runner to run some of those inside slot routes.
So we’ll start him outside. We’ll start with Ruggs III in the slot and do some things with Ruggs III. But those guys are very multiple in what they can do and that’s the goal is to be able to move all of them around to different spots; the one, two or three position at the wide receiver.”

This quote in its fullness is pretty confusing—I’m not sure Olson exactly knew what he was saying. It’s clear that he wants to emphasize that his receivers are mentally and physically capable of playing both outside and inside, and that’s only good news for both players. But the word “start” is a bit muddled—does he mean “start” them in terms of the position at which they’ll initially learn the playbook, or “start” them in terms of putting them on the field for Week 1, snap 1?

With Olson’s murky comments considered, we can try to solve the riddle ourselves by looking at the current Raiders’ receiver room. It’s far from a pretty picture, but it is clear who was the best wide receiver in Oakland last year: Hunter Renfrow, the plucky rookie slot out of Clemson. Despite missing three games last season, Renfrow led the Raiders’ receiving corps with 71 targets, second only to tight end Darren Waller on the entire team. Despite a shallow 6.6 air yards/target, Renfrow was a wildly efficient receiver on a route run basis, coming in 11th last season in both routes targeted (23.1%) and yards/route run (2.09)—that puts him right up there with Michael Gallup, Courtland Sutton, and Chris Godwin as some of the league’s sexiest and most promising young receivers.

Renfrow was primarily a slot for the Raiders. He took almost three times as many snaps there (313) as he did out wide (122), putting his snap share in the top 20 for all receivers. His analytic and on-field profile are both wildly comparable to such players as Cooper Kupp and Cole Beasley—indeed, Renfrow almost immediately slid into the niche that many expected for him in the league. 

The only remaining incumbent of note on the Raiders’ wide receiver room is Tyrell Williams, who disappointed a bit relative to expectations set when the Raiders cut Antonio Brown, thrusting Williams into a primary role as an outside receiver. Foot injuries and drops hampered Williams all season, who filled the X-spot for the Raiders opposite journeyman Zay Jones, who played the Z.

This glance at the Raiders thin receiver room illustrates why they double-dipped at the position with Ruggs and Edwards. It doesn’t, however, give us great clarity on Ruggs and Edwards’ future deployments. If Olson intends on starting both—very possible, given Edwards’ likely higher draft stock were he healthy for the pre-draft process—then their versatility would pair best with Williams, who has significant experience lining up in the slot (952 snaps over the last four years), over Renfrow, who is strictly a slot receiver. 

Note that Olson discusses starting Ruggs in the slot, which many have assumed means that Ruggs is taking over Renfrow’s starting job. But if the Raiders do still view Renfrow as a player they should keep on the field—which, given his rookie performance, is an easily-justifiable position—then Ruggs is a snug fit in the Z-receiver role opposite Williams, where speed is often prioritized. Edwards’ versatility then allows him to back up or challenge for every spot in a rotation or in the event of injury.

The simple reality is this: the Raiders have a second-year Day 3 pick, a veteran with proven versatility who hasn’t yet found a home on this squad, and two rookies. One rookie had a relatively predictable alignment in Alabama, but was also playing with more first-round receivers than you can count, and proved across multiple seasons of film that he could line up everywhere; the other actually did line up everywhere as the premier talent on South Carolina’s receiving corps after Deebo Samuel’s departure. Beside Renfrow’s quality slot performance, nothing is known about this team, let alone cemented.

As such, the only thing that can be firmly drawn from Olson’s comments is the sense that the Raiders are trying to figure this out, the same as we are. I would be stunned if the snap distribution at wide receiver remains the same from Week 1 to Week 9, let alone the particular alignment and route distribution, as their young players use the early weeks of the season to ramp up to NFL play. The best policy here is a policy of experimentation and patience as a retooled wide receiver room searches for balance and identity.