Hunter Renfrow arrived in Oakland last summer as a national championship hero. An unassuming receiver who built a historic career at Clemson by always finding a way to get open and always coming through when his number was called in the clutch.
The Raiders drafted Renfrow in the fifth round in 2019, hoping they found a crucial piece of their offense for years to come. A top-notch slot receiver is critical in the modern NFL, helping move the chains on third down and finding holes in the defense in the red zone. Renfrow got off to a slow start, catching just 14 balls for 114 yards through the Raiders' first six games.
Precision is crucial in Jon Gruden's offense. The Raiders coach wants the routes run exactly how he envisions them. Renfrow is more of a freelancer. A slot receiver who thrives off feel and instinct, not on perfect mastery of a route tree. His ability to get open at Clemson came from Dabo Swinney's ability to let Renfrow be Renfrow. He's been known to adlib his routes, breaking them off and altering them in the slightest to gain an advantage over the defense.
After some early-season struggles that saw him fail to find ways to get open consistently as he showed he could do at Clemson, the Raiders took the reins off Renfrow and he became one of the best slot receivers in the NFL during the second half of the season. From Week 7 on, Renfrow caught 35 passes for 491 yards and four touchdowns.
During that stretch, he flashed his signature clutch gene that made him a household name at Clemson, when he caught the game-winning touchdown late in the Raiders' Week 8 win over the Detroit Lions. On third-and-goal, quarterback Derek Carr rolled left to buy time and saw Renfrow break free and cut back toward the pylon. Carr fired a strike which Renfrow snagged, getting both feet down inbounds to send the Oakland Coliseum into a frenzy.
That play highlighted Renfrow's ability to elevate the Raiders' offense, and showed why his continued upward trajectory will be key for an offensive resurgence in 2020.
The Raiders' offense got more explosive in the offseason, thanks to the additions of Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, Lynn Bowden Jr. and Nelson Agholor. Those weapons should make the sledding easier for star tight end Darren Waller and a healthy Tyrell Williams.
But it's Renfrow who needs to expand upon his late-season success for this offense to reach its ceiling.
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Trust is imperative in any quarterback-receiver relationship. That's even more true with Carr who has been known to look away from guys once they've burned him a time or two. But if you've earned Carr's trust, he has no problem trusting you to make tight grab after tight grab in traffic.
The trust between Carr and Renfrow was cemented during the back half of last season, when Renfrow and Waller were the healthy receivers in the pattern who Carr could rely on.
"I had it with him from the moment I met him," Carr said of his trust in Renfrow in November. "His love for football, you can see it in his eyes. His love for the team. I've said it before and I'll say it again, he does not care who catches that last ball. I promise you that. He doesn't care if he gets one catch at all. He just wants to win.
"When guys are that selfless, you ask them to do selfless things in the run game, ask them to do selfless things in the pass game, clearing some things out, it really feels good when a guy who's very selfless makes a game-winning touchdown catch."
Defenses started to key in on Renfrow in December, knowing Carr would be looking his way on crucial downs. With more weapons available to the Raiders in 2020, Renfrow should have more room to operate as defenses look to stop Ruggs, Waller and Williams from generating big plays.
With the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, robbing Carr of time to jell with Ruggs, Edwards and Bowden in a sanctioned environment, it will be up to those the quarterback already trusts to carry a heavier load earlier in the 2020 campaign.
Waller is a blossoming star who should have Pro Bowl aspirations. There's no doubt he's going to get his numbers. Williams is a seasoned veteran who will be motivated after an injury-riddled first season in Silver and Black.
Renfrow holds the key to a true offensive leap. If you take Renfrow's second-half numbers (36 catches, 491 yards and four touchdowns), and extrapolate those averages (5.1 catches, 80 yards and 0.5 touchdowns) over a 16-game season, you get 80 catches for 1,122 yards and nine touchdowns. Only three players in the NFL had at least 80 catches, 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns last season: Michael Thomas, Cooper Kupp and Chris Godwin.
This isn't to say that should be the expectation for Renfrow, but it shows his ceiling and the value he can provide to an offense that was mundane and punchless for most of 2019 through no fault of its own.
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The speed of Ruggs and the playmaking ability of Bowden and Edwards will be huge boons. So too will the health of Williams.
But Renfrow has the ability to join Kupp, Julian Edelman and Jarvis Landry as one of the premier slot receivers in the NFL. Having an 80-catch, 1,100-yard slot receiver gives the Raiders' offense the perfect weapon for the modern NFL. A savvy receiver capable of extending drives and rescuing his quarterback when a play breaks down.
Stats don't matter to Renfrow. He only cares about two things.
“The two things I’ve always judged myself by have nothing to do with catches or stats,” Renfrow said on The Raiders Talk Podcast in September. “Am I being a great teammate, and does it matter that I’m on the team? Am I making an impact and am I helping us win games?
"If I can say yes to those things, then I can live with the results.”
The results were sterling during a stellar rookie season.
Big things should be expected of Renfrow in Year 2. If he delivers, there's no telling how dynamic the Raiders' offense can be.