Jon Gruden's inability to get Henry Ruggs involved hurt 2020 Raiders

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Josh Schrock
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Gruden must find way to get Ruggs more involved in 2021 originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The 2020 NFL Draft class was loaded at wide receiver, with six dynamic pass-catchers drafted in the first round.

The Raiders kicked off the run on wide receivers, drafting Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs with the No. 12. The idea for Jon Gruden was simple: You can't teach speed. Ruggs' 4.27 40 time was the stuff of nightmares. The type of speed that can give defenses fits and fundamentally alter the way defenses defend your entire offense.

Gruden wanted to force defenses to defend every blade of grass, using Ruggs to stretch them vertically and making them shade coverage in his direction. That, in theory, would give Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow and Nelson Agholor more favorable matchups with the defense focused on not getting burned by Ruggs.

The Raiders wanted their version of Tyreek Hill. While Ruggs' skillset fits the mold, he hasn't been utilized in the same way the Chiefs use Hill.

With one game left in a lost 2020 season for the Raiders, Ruggs has just five deep targets on the season, per Pro Football Focus. Ruggs was supposed to feast on slants. No quarterback has more completions on slant routes than Derek Carr since Gruden took over. Carr also ranks third in rating on slants in that period. In 2019 at Alabama, Ruggs caught three touchdown passes on slants, using his elite speed to turn a moderate gain into an explosive play. This season, Ruggs has zero catches on two targets when running a slant.

There was no better example of how the Raiders misused their top draft pick than in Saturday's loss to the Miami Dolphins when the rookie was targeted just twice and didn't have a catch. In contrast, veteran tight end Jason Witten had five targets in the loss. In the 12 games Ruggs has played this season, he has been targeted five times only twice.

When asked about the lack of targets for Ruggs on Monday, Gruden pointed to the rookie's recent absence due to a bout with COVID-19, his lack of practice time and limited production.

"Well, Ruggs has been sick for 10 days; he just showed up Friday," Gruden said. "We didn't know if he was going to play, so that had something to do with it. Right now, just so we're all on the same page, we're targeting Waller and doing a pretty good job of that. We're targeting Nelson Agholor because those are our top-two guys and we're targeting Josh Jacobs. Ruggs has got to practice, stay with us longer and he's got to do more with his targets and when he does he'll see the ball more."

RELATED: Raiders' failed 2020 season falls on Jon Gruden's shoulders

Ruggs' lack of production is even more glaring when compared to the numbers put up by fellow first-round picks Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb and Brandon Aiyuk.

The problem isn't with Ruggs' talent. He's got a skill that you can't teach and one the Raiders lacked in 2019. But Gruden has failed to utilize it properly.

If Ruggs isn't up to speed on the full playbook, then fine, but the Raiders still should have found a way to get him the ball on slants, drag routes and screens to make his speed a weapon that defenses have to account for.

Agholor has been a great find for the Raiders. If they can't re-sign him, then Ruggs' development becomes even more critical this offseason.

During his rookie season, Hill had 12 touchdowns and 860 yards from scrimmage. Ruggs currently has 456 yards and two touchdowns. That difference is due in large part to usage. Andy Reid found ways to get the ball into Hill's hands. Gruden hasn't done that with Ruggs and it's one of the great mysteries of the Raiders' 2020 season.