Hunter Renfrow

Hunter Renfrow's continued growth is key to Raiders' offensive resurgence

Hunter Renfrow's continued growth is key to Raiders' offensive resurgence

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.

Elite company.

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.

[RELATED: Raiders' playoff path tougher with Cam in New England]

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.

Charles Woodson believes revamped Raiders offense will be 'explosive'

Charles Woodson believes revamped Raiders offense will be 'explosive'

The 2019 Raiders offense was -- for lack of better terms -- boring, punchless and mundane.

It wasn't the fault of Derek Carr or Jon Gruden, as they were put behind the eight ball when Antonio Brown demanded his release and did the best they could to revamp the offense on the fly. The Raiders were ranked 11th in the NFL in yards per game, but only 24th in scoring. They also struggled to convert on third down and in the red zone.

Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock went to work rebuilding the offense in the draft, selecting wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, as well as do-it-all Kentucky athlete Lynn Bowden. Add those three playmakers to a cast that already includes tight end Darren Waller, running back Josh Jacobs, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and Tyrell Williams and you have the makings of an offense that could be one of the most dynamic in the NFL.

Raiders legend Charles Woodson believes the unit can be "explosive" in 2020 and can't wait to watch them work.

"Offensively, they're all different types of guys, man," Woodson said of the 2020 draft class, via Raiders.com. "They're guys you can do different things with and I kind of got excited about adding those guys to Josh Jacobs, [Darren] Waller and Derek Carr. I think offensively they have a chance to be explosive and defensively I think, they brought in [Cory] Littleton from the Rams, he's going to be a key. I think they're going to have to gel as a defense and some young guys are going to have to step up and make some plays for that defense, but offensively I think they have a chance to be explosive."

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]
 

With the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs setting the pace, the rest of the AFC spent the offseason trying to close the gap between them and the NFL's best team.

The Raiders loaded up on offense in the draft and focused on upgrading their defense in free agency, adding linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, defensive end Carl Nassib, safeties Damarious Randall and Jeff Heath and cornerback Prince Amukamara.

That infusion of talent should help a defense that was ranked 30th in DVOA last year go from the bottom of the NFL to somewhere in the middle of the pack.

[RELATED: Edwards' ability to fill Deebo's role should excite Raiders]

But all eyes will be on the offense in 2020. With a loaded arsenal of weapons, one of the best offensive lines in football and a hardened mentality, all signs point to Carr potentially having a career year in the Raiders' inaugural season in Las Vegas. Carr put up solid stats in 2019, but he was unable to deliver wins down the stretch as the Silver and Black finished 1-5 to fall out of playoff contention.

Carr bears some responsibility for the Raiders' late-season struggles, but he wasn't playing with a full deck. Williams suffered from plantar fasciitis from Week 2 on and Jacobs missed three of the last four games with a fractured shoulder. That allowed defenses to key in on Waller and Renfrow and slow Gruden's offense to a crawl.

With playmakers across the board in 2020, that shouldn't be an issue if the Raiders remain healthy. Ruggs' game-changing speed means the defense will have to account for him on every snap. If Edwards can play even a moderate role as a big slot and chain-mover, that will give Carr four receivers who are capable of making people miss and turning short, safe throws into longer gains.

Woodson expects to see a new-look Raiders offense in 2020. One that -- if all things go according to plan -- help lead them to the playoffs.

2020 NFL Draft: Raiders surrounding Derek Carr with offensive weapons

2020 NFL Draft: Raiders surrounding Derek Carr with offensive weapons

There was plenty of pre-draft noise about the Raiders taking a quarterback with one of their selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, possibly as early as the first round with Jordan Love or Jalen Hurts as options a bit later.

None of that materialized. They were never considering Love in the first round. They had two chances to take him and passed. Hurts was the Philadelphia Eagles' second-round pick. The Raiders didn’t even take a late-round flier to join Carr, Marcus Mariota and Nathan Peterman.

All that despite the fact pundits kept bringing up head coach Jon Gruden’s affinity for draft-eligible quarterbacks. The Raiders met with several during the pre-draft process as part of due diligence, just as they did a year ago, and then didn’t take any of them.

Anyone surprised by that fact should check the tape. A team with Gruden as the head decision-maker has never taken a quarterback before the third round. He took Chris Simms there in 2003. He took Brad Gradkowski in the sixth round in 2006 and Josh Johnson in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. (As a note: The Raiders made Marques Tuiasosopo a second-round pick in 2001, but Al Davis was in charge then). Yeah, that’s it.

The Raiders' plan was to address pressing needs in the draft as they had done in free agency. Quarterback isn’t one.

They added a lot of veteran defensive talent in March. In late April, the Raiders used three picks to trick out their offense around Carr.

The Raiders added human rocket ship Henry Ruggs III with the No. 12 overall pick, do-everything running back/receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. at No. 80 and big-bodied highlight-reel receiver Bryan Edwards at No. 81.

While Carr hasn’t made his feelings publicly known about these additions, he’s obviously pumped. Carr expressed such excitement while texting with general manager Mike Mayock during the NFL Draft. Often, it turns out, without actual words.

“It started with the Ruggs III pick,” Mayock said. “…I got about five texts with 'W-O-W-!'. He was just fired up with that pick. Then we get Edwards and Bowden. I don't even know how to make emojis. I was just looking at all these emojis like 'I guess he's happy, that looks good.’

“Bottom line, what I said last night is what we're trying to do is get more dynamic on offense and I think that's what Derek recognizes as well.”

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]
 

All three draft picks are capable of making an instant and unique impact joining an offense that already sports some quality.

Elite tight end Darren Waller, rookie-of-the-year-worthy running back Josh Jacobs and sneaky-good slot receiver Hunter Renfrow already are in silver and black with at least three years remaining on their contracts. This new group could be together for a long, long time.

Here’s a quick look at top options Carr will be working with this season:

WR: Tyrell Williams, Bryan Edwards
WR: Henry Ruggs III, Nelson Agholor
Slot: Hunter Renfrow
RB: Josh Jacobs, Jalen Richard
FB: Alex Ingold
RB/“Joker”: Lynn Bowden
TE: Darren Waller, Jason Witten, Foster Moreau

Looking at that list, Carr has plenty of reasons to be excited.

That’s especially true when operating behind a stout offensive line led by Rodney Hudson and Trent Brown. The Raiders certainly are faster and more dynamic and will play that way, but won’t forget their big-boy football, multiple tight end roots. Jacobs will still be heavily featured, but the Raiders are versatile enough -- if, of course, the draft picks pan out -- to beat you several different ways.

[RELATED: Why Raiders believe virtual offseason program will work]

Carr hasn’t had a supporting cast this deep and talented, with the 2016 squad the only crew even in the conversation. And, in 2016, Carr finished third in MVP voting despite breaking his leg late in the year.

It will be interesting to see how Carr fares with a solid offensive line and all that firepower in his third season under Gruden and the team’s first in Las Vegas.