Henry Ruggs' first trip around the NFL sun didn't go as planned. But that was the story of the Raiders' 2020 season.
The Raiders drafted Ruggs with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, making him the first receiver selected in what was a loaded class that included All-Pro Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy. Jon Gruden and the Raiders planned to weaponize Ruggs' blazing 4.27 speed, hoping to mold him into their own version of Kansas City Chiefs do-everything star Tyreek Hill.
In 13 games, Ruggs caught 26 passes for 452 yards and two touchdowns, falling well short of the expectations both he and the Raiders set for him in Year 1 in Silver and Black.
General manager Mike Mayock told the Raiders team website that he was disappointed with the production of the entire rookie class. Ruggs is his harshest critic and plans to use his poor introduction to the NFL as fuel for 2021.
“It’s motivation not only because I want to make myself happy but because I am my biggest critic but I want to make the organization happy with the way I play," Ruggs told NBC Sports Bay Area about Mayock's critique. "As a rookie class I don’t feel like we did step up to the expectations, so we do have things that we have to do to improve as a class. But not only that, anybody who follows me on social media knows that probably a week before I graded myself on my season and gave myself a D-minus. It was no shots at Mr. Mike, no backlash at the organization, it’s simply motivation for me because I didn’t have the season I wanted to.”
Ruggs was a star at Alabama, one-quarter of a dynamic receiving corps that included Jeudy, 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and presumed first-round pick Jaylen Waddle. In Tuscaloosa, Ruggs was a featured weapon on a team that only plays for championships.
Life was different with the Raiders as Ruggs arrived to play a role alongside Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller, speedster Nelson Agholor and third-down maven Hunter Renfrow. That didn't bother Ruggs, though. His main focus is getting the Raiders where they want to go.
It's that mentality that stood out to Waller, who believes Ruggs will reach the lofty ceiling set for him.
"I am still very impressed with Henry," Waller told NBC Sports Bay Area. "The production may not have been there in people’s eyes but I’m more impressed by his maturity. His mental approach. Because there were a lot of things that didn’t go his way and it’s something he’s not used to. He’s used to being a key weapon on a winning team and things kind of changed for him coming in. I felt like he dealt with it well. I don’t think he’s blamed anyone else or made any excuses. He’s accepted it for what it is and he’s a guy who I know is going to come into next season with a great attitude and just continue to improve. I like having Henry Ruggs on my team."
The Raiders wanted to utilize Ruggs in the same way the Chiefs do Hill, making defenses defend every blade of grass and using Ruggs' speed to stress them in ways that would open up the field for Waller, Renfrow and Agholor. But Gruden didn't do that. Ruggs had just five deep targets all season and was targeted just twice on slants, the route he tore defenses apart with in college.
Hill had 12 touchdowns and 860 yards from scrimmage during his rookie season, while Ruggs failed to make that sort of dynamic impact in large part due to Gruden's inability to get the ball in his hands.
Ruggs has a clear goal in mind for what he needs to bring in Year 2 in Silver and Black.
“The biggest thing is probably consistency," Ruggs said. "That thing that I try to harp on and playing at my top speed all the time and recognizing the different things on the field. So mentally it’s watching a lot more film, doing a lot more studying. Of course, the physical stuff has to come because it’s a grown man’s game. I have to get bigger, have to get stronger. But mostly the consistency and the mental side of the game."
Ruggs entered the NFL during a tough year for rookies. The COVID-19 pandemic took away rookie minicamp and OTAs, turning all the learning online. For Ruggs, that made the initial adjustment from college to the pros difficult.
The issues were evident throughout his first season in Las Vegas. The issue isn't with the talent. Ruggs has that in spades. But Gruden has to find ways to get him the ball in Year 2, whether that be on slants, drags, screens or sweeps. Putting the ball in Ruggs' hands and letting his speed do the work is the easiest way to get production out of him while he works to become a complete receiver.
The Raiders no doubt will want to re-sign Agholor, who had a resurgent year in 2020. But if they get outbid, that will make Ruggs' development all the more critical as Gruden and Co. look to finally take a leap toward playoff contention.
Waller knows Ruggs is an important piece to what the Raiders want to become and he believes in the young receiver and knows exactly what he needs to do to go from untapped rookie to dynamic star.
"If he can find a way to match the quickness out of breaks with the level of speed that he has there’s nothing you can really do to stop it," Waller said. "He’s naturally going to get stronger I feel like as he continues to be part of strength programs and just continues to grow as a man I feel like he’s definitely going to get strong physically and mentally. But if he can get those coming out of routes just as fast as he gets going downfield that’s just a problem waiting to happen for a lot of defenses."
That was what the Raiders envisioned when they called Ruggs' name last April. Now, they have to get to work to make that plan a reality.