When Jon Gruden returned to the Raiders in 2018, he tore down the roster to the studs, enacting a full rebuild to remake the Silver and Black in his image of a winning team.
The first step in building the Raiders back up was the 2019 draft class. Running back Josh Jacobs, defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, cornerback Trayvon Mullen and tight end Foster Moreau put together an impressive rookie campaign where they showed they were the future of the Raiders organization and planned to be the ground floor of a dynastic rebirth for the Silver and Black.
The 2020 draft class enters with sky-high expectations. Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock's first joint operation was a grand slam. They hit on every pick, landing key contributors at multiple positions that are key to success in today's NFL.
Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs is the prized jewel of Gruden's first Las Vegas draft class. The speedy receiver headlines a group of rookies that includes cornerback Damon Arnette, wide receiver Bryan Edwards and athlete Lynn Bowden. While it is unfair to expect the 2020 class to meet the level of their predecessors, Ruggs and his fellow rookies plan to do whatever it takes to be the second cornerstone in Gruden's rebuilding masterpiece.
"We want to come in and impress the team and like I said, help win," Ruggs said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. "We're all in this together. We all want to do something special, all want to help the team out. I'm proud of the way everyone is coming into work, coming in here early and leaving late. Just talking to them, everyone has the right mindset to go in and help the team. So, I feel like whenever it's that time, any one of us can step up and do some big things."
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It's rare for a team to rely on six rookies, let along get meaningful contributions from the entire group throughout the season. That's the bar the 2019 class set for all Raiders rookies coming after them. They came in on Day 1 ready to work and establish a culture of winning that can lead to exponential growth as the franchise shifts to Las Vegas.
Jacobs was a star right out of the gate and would have won Offensive Rookie of the Year if not for a shoulder injury that cost him three games at the end of the season. Mullen showed shutdown corner potential and Crosby went from unheralded, small-school prospect to 10-sack man in the blink of an eye. Renfrow developed quick chemistry with quarterback Derek Carr and showed he could be the next great NFL slot receiver. It seemed all Moreau did was make important catches that either moved the sticks or put points on the scoreboard, and Ferrell battled through illness and weight loss to have a solid rookie season with expected improvement in Year 2.
The Raiders were 6-4 and staring at a playoff berth born out of rookie contributions. They fell flat during the stretch run, finishing 7-9 and missing the playoffs. Another injection of young talent should help the Raiders make another leap in 2020.
It will be incumbent on Ruggs, Arnette, Edwards, Bowden, Tanner Muse, Amik Robertson and John Simpson to carry the torch lit by their predecessors.
As the No. 12 overall pick and a key player at a position of need, it will be up to Ruggs to set the tone for a talented group.
"We drafted Josh Jacobs out of Alabama and he wasn't their feature back, we drafted Ruggs he wasn't their featured receiver," Gruden said Thursday. "So we have got to prove that we made the pick ... but we like Ruggs. We like a lot more about Ruggs than his blocking. We didn't take him in the first round to block. That's not going to be his primary role but it is an ingredient that he has, his toughness, his every-down competitiveness that has a chance to make him a great player in this league."
After a complete teardown, Gruden and the Raiders have had to rely more on youth than most teams would like. But the Raiders have been comfortable handing the keys of the franchise over to those destined to be the building blocks for future success. It paid off in spades last season, and the Raiders aren't worried about key rookies like Ruggs having early growing pains.
"We've been good fast-tracking players at every position," Gruden said. "I think last year was a great indication. I think over the last couple years, a lot of young players have played for us. That was the goal when we got here. You could say we excavated the land here in terms of the roster the first year. We have built it back with young players -- Maxx Crosby, Cle Ferrell, obviously Josh Jacobs and Renfrow. Kolton Miller started as a rookie, Brandon Parker started as a rookie. So we don't have any doubt that -- Trayvon Mullen if he can start then Arnette can start. John Abram was an opening-day starter as well so we're not afraid to play the young guys, but they got to earn it."
The 2019 class set a high bar last season. It might not be fair to ask Ruggs and the 2020 class to clear that bar, but they are coming in ready to follow in the footsteps of those that came before them.