Who Will Be Raiders' WR1 In 2021?

Photo: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Flashback to 2016. Derek Carr is dropping back. To his left, Amari Cooper is split out wide and to his right, Michael Crabtree was outside and Seth Roberts was in the slot. Those were the days, weren’t they Raider fans? The Las Vegas Raiders have been searching for a true No. 1 receiver ever since the team traded Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys back in 2018 for a first-round pick but have been unable to do so. 

The team has attempted to replace Cooper multiple times through free agency as well as through the draft. Back in the offseason of 2019, the Raiders made an aggressive trade to acquire Antonio Brown from the Steelers for a third- and fifth-round pick. The team then went on to sign former Los Angeles Chargers receiver Tyrell Williams to be the team’s No. 2 option. Both the trade for Brown and the signing of Williams were praised, and rightfully so. Brown was coming off arguably the best five seasons stretch by a receiver in NFL history and was at the peak of his career while Williams was coming off multiple productive years as the No. 2 receiver opposite Keenan Allen and he was looking for a bigger role, which the Raiders at the time offered.

For a short while it appeared the Raiders had more than replaced Cooper and if anything, they greatly improved at the position. Fast forward two years and we know that certainly is not the case. Brown wound up getting released in training camp for being a complete headache off the field, and Williams dealt with multiple injuries which resulted in him playing in just 16 out of the 32 possible games in his two-year career with the Silver and Black. Williams was released this past offseason and finished his Raider career with just 651 receiving yards. 

In 2020, the Raiders again made addressing the receiver position a huge priority. The team signed Nelson Agholor in free agency and then drafted two receivers early in the 2020 NFL Draft. With their first-round pick, the Raiders selected Henry Ruggs III 12th overall, making him the first receiver taken in what was a historic wide receiver class. Las Vegas then double-dipped at the position in the third round by drafting South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards and Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden.

The early returns from these moves are less than ideal so far. Both Ruggs and Edwards failed to live up to their big expectations as rookies and were greatly outproduced by other players in their class. Bowden didn’t even make it to opening day as he was traded to the Miami Dolphins before the season even started. The Raiders did strike gold with Agholor, however, as the low-cost free agent ended up leading the team in receiving last year showing outstanding chemistry with Carr—something Ruggs didn’t. 

Now that we are just about through with the 2021 offseason, the Raiders appear no closer to replacing Cooper as the team’s No. 1 receiver than they were in 2018 when they traded him. Unfortunately for the Raiders, Agholor priced himself out of a return to the team and signed a sizable contract with the New England Patriots, leaving just Ruggs, Edwards, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, and newly acquired receiver John Brown atop the depth chart. 

Who will be the team’s No. 1 receiver in 2021 now with Agholor gone? Let’s take a look at the candidates. 

Henry Ruggs III

In a perfect world, Ruggs is the team’s top receiver and breaks out for a monster sophomore season. After an extremely disappointing rookie year, the pressure is now on for Ruggs to show he was worth taking as the overall WR1 in the 2020 draft. Ruggs finished his rookie season with 26 receptions for 452 yards and two touchdown receptions while playing in 13 games due to injury. These numbers are bad enough as it is, but then when you consider the seasons Ruggs' rookie counterparts had, it gets downright terrible. The league saw players such as Justin Jefferson, Chase Claypool, and Tee Higgins have instant success as rookies and the fact that Ruggs was drafted significantly higher than each of them is a cause for concern.

Now, to be fair, Ruggs' lack of production certainly wasn’t all his fault. Gruden failed to properly utilize Ruggs as a complete receiver and instead treated him like a situational deep threat where he was only really targeted on go routes. Moving forward, Ruggs needs to be allowed to run a full route tree and be targeted with quick screens, bubbles, and slants to get the ball in his hands early and let his ridiculous speed go to work.

If I were a betting man, I’d bank on Ruggs leading this team in receiving because 1) He has the talent to do so and 2) Gruden knows if Ruggs fails, he will be put under a microscope.

John Brown 

The Raiders signing John Brown was one of the most underrated deals in all of free agency. Brown is coming off of a down year with the Buffalo Bills, having played in just nine games and finishing the season with 33 receptions for 458 yards and three touchdowns after missing time with a nagging ankle injury. Back in 2019 when Brown was healthy, he produced 1,060 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 72 receptions.

If healthy, Brown has a legit shot to be this team’s No. 1 receiver. He runs outstanding routes with excellent speed and quickness to separate at the top. He has very good hands and is tough as nails after the catch. Brown is a lock to start in two-receiver sets and his veteran leadership will be a welcomed presence as this Raiders receiver room lacks veteran depth.

There is a redundancy issue here as Brown and Ruggs have similar skill sets, but if last year was any indication, Carr trusts veteran players and Brown will definitely get his opportunity to produce for the Silver and Black. 

Bryan Edwards

Edwards entered the 2020 season with all sorts of hype after reportedly having a strong training camp. There was talk that Edwards would be the steal of fantasy drafts everywhere and that by season's end he might be the Raiders' top receiver. Well, that definitely didn’t happen.

Edwards finished the season with just 11 receptions for 193 yards and one touchdown. Edwards ended up playing in just 12 games and only made three starts. Much of Edwards' struggles were due to an early-season foot injury which really hobbled him throughout the season, but the lack of production and overall impact is extremely concerning especially when you consider the opportunity Edwards had in front of him.

Similar to Ruggs, the pressure is on for Edwards to show out this season and capitalize on another opportunistic depth chart. One thing working for Edwards is that, unlike Ruggs and Brown, Edwards is more of a traditional X receiver who can win with size and strength rather than just speed. Edwards has very good size at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds and flashed very good ball skills and hands. His ability to win in contested situations and over the middle will be key for Carr and this offense and he should get his fair share of targets when he is in the lineup. While I wouldn’t bet that Edwards leads the team in receiving, I do think he is in store for a significant uptick in production.

Julio Jones

Yes, you read that correctly! Maybe the Raiders' No. 1 receiver isn’t on the roster yet. We all know by now that Jones wants a trade out of Atlanta and the Raiders are one of the rumored teams to be interested in acquiring the future Hall of Famer. This move makes all the sense in the world for Las Vegas, as it will give Carr a true No. 1 receiver and allow for Gruden to make up for his mistake with Brown.

If the Raiders add Jones, all of a sudden, a receiving corps that consists of Ruggs as your No. 2, Brown in the slot, and Edwards as your No. 4, becomes one of the best in the NFL. Time will tell if the Raiders make a trade here, but if they do, then clearly Jones will be leading this team in receiving.

Written By:

Brentley Weissman

NFL Draft Analyst

Experienced Recruiting and Scouting professional with past stops with the University of Oregon, UCLA, Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers.

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