Potential Game-Changer Henry Ruggs Brings More Than Speed to the Table
Note: Since I no longer have access to the necessary college film to chart prospects and their Reception Perception samples, I’ll be taking RP data from the NFL level and using it to frame what we can expect from these incoming rookies and their best role as pro receivers. You can get access to Reception Perception data on the Top 50 NFL receivers in the 2020 Ultimate Draft Kit.
A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the NFL’s upcoming college draft in late April. If you aren’t sure why I’d like to first welcome you to this little world called “The Internet.”
One thing that is certain about the 2020 NFL Draft, it contains an enviable class of wide receiver prospects. The world over almost universally agrees that Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb are the top-two receivers in the class. Generally, Jeudy’s teammate Henry Ruggs falls right behind them at the three-spot. Yet, there are others who rank Ruggs ahead of one or both of these wildly productive prospects.
Speed doesn’t just kill, it opens the imagination. Ruggs’ wheels have clearly captured the minds of draft evaluators. Let’s see what else is there beyond the speed.
Ruggs’ evaluation becomes controversial when you look at the stat sheet. The speedster was third on his own team in catches (40), yards (746) and touchdowns (seven). He trailed both Jeudy and Devonta Smith. It’s troubling to consider spending a high equity draft pick on a player who wasn’t even the leading receiver on his own college team.
However, my first reaction to hearing this note in Ruggs’ profile was, “didn’t we just do this last year?” The reality that D.K. Metcalf was out-produced by fellow draft prospect A.J. Brown at Ole Miss was repeated relentlessly leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft. A fascinating nugget, surely, but one year later we can confirm it didn’t matter much.
You know what happened? They both turned out to be good players. Imagine that.
Brown is probably better than Metcalf. Jeudy is probably better than Ruggs. But those latter two receivers both hold tremendous value in their own right, it doesn’t really discredit them. Both things can be true.
Much like Metcalf, Ruggs will appeal mostly to teams thanks to his verifiable trump card trait. His speed will help flip the field in moments, opening up new possibilities for whichever team that drafts him thanks to his ability to streak open down the field or take a short pass the distance. Bringing that ability to the NFL right away can help ease concerns because it’s unlikely his pro team will ask him to be a full-field No. 1 receiver, at least not right away. As he grows, they can still get a ton of value out of him, just like the Seahawks did with Metcalf.
Now, just because Metcalf worked out for the Seahawks doesn’t mean that Ruggs will become a successful player in the NFL. This recent example just helps us see a path to getting past this one particular concern in his profile.
The initial takeaway to watching Ruggs purely as a route runner: Pleasantly surprised.
We need to go over this seemingly every draft season but speed is not the only thing that makes a deep threat. Plenty of players can run fast. It takes a marriage of other skills. The ability to set up defenders with head fakes and other modes of deception to sell the vertical route before snapping back on curls, comebacks and other short to intermediate routes.
It was great to see Ruggs has that ability in his arsenal. You can see him carry a cornerback in his hip pocket with tight man coverage before quickly shuffling back on a route against a variety of teams on film. He creates ample separation on those plays.
Ruggs’ ability to shake and sharply cut on his routes gives you hope he can be more than just a deep threat. He can ward off defenders in an instant with his quickness the routes’ breaking point. My favorite route he shoed on film was the dig. He amassed 105 yards and five catches off five targets on dig routes last season, per Sports Info Solutions, good for 14 percent of his total yards.
One area Ruggs needs to work on is at the line of scrimmage. His release from press coverage is average at this point. The Alabama receiver isn’t unwilling to engage in the physical aspect of this particular arena of wide receiver play, he just needs to diversify his moves here.
A little lacking in this area is far from uncommon for a college prospect. Also, consider that there are so many ways a team can deploy Ruggs so that he faces less press coverage. We’ve seen several NFL deep threats carry this weakness into the league and still carve out highly successful careers.
From an application standpoint, Henry Ruggs looks like he can have a similar impact to that of Texans wide receiver Will Fuller. When Fuller hit the NFL scene, he had serious concerns beyond just his hands. His lack of technique often thwarted him at the line of scrimmage, making him an impossible player to trust as a down-to-down route runner.
However, as his career went on, Fuller improved as a full-field player, especially against press coverage. When he was logged in 2018 for Reception Perception, he suddenly looked like a strong separator across the board.
His most notable improvement came against press. In 2017, he checked in with a paltry 52 percent success rate vs. press coverage. Come the 2018 season, he had lept more than 10 percentage points to a 62.7 percent score. That’s not an elite number or anything but it’s a strong improvement and more than passable considering how many deep routes he runs.
Ruggs looks like a player you want to line up across from a strong X-receiver and allow for movement from flanker inside to the slot. Fuller had the benefit of playing across from DeAndre Hopkins prior to 2020 (lol Bill O’Brien), which brought a world of pain for defenses to try and plan against. A deep threat like Fuller typically dictates coverages and shifts the deployment of entire secondaries in trying to defend. That’s tough to do when you already have an elite No. 1 receiver across the field in Hopkins. Ruggs could fill this role with extreme success.
From a pure player comparison standpoint, Ruggs reminded me of early-career Mike Wallace. In addition to his go route prowess, Wallace piled up yards on crossing routes when the Steelers put him in space and got him a free release. Considering some of Ruggs’ current weaknesses, those types of crossing routes would fit in his portfolio quite well. He piled up 56.8 percent of his yards after the catch in 2019 and could elude defenders in the open field on crossers in a similar manner at the next level.
Henry Ruggs’ rare speed already made him a worthy first-round pick. The route-running ability on patterns like digs and crossers gives you confidence that he can become a starting NFL receiver. When you observe some of the needed nuances he brings to the table when using deception to snap back to the quarterback, you see he is the type of prospect you take in the Top-15 and let alter your entire offense.
The beauty of a player like Ruggs is that he impacts your team even when he’s not getting targets. No matter whether he develops into a top-level, No. 1 receiver in his own right, his proven speed will force teams into binds and cause them to dedicate extra resources his way. That will never show up in your fantasy bottom-line but it will make a huge difference to his next team.
And if he does continue to develop his own game while scaring teams with his mere speed and becomes paired with a strong No. 1 receiver, then you’re looking at a Will Fuller-type player. A guy like that will help your fantasy team.
When you look at teams in the top half of Round 1, the Denver Broncos almost make too much sense for Ruggs. Not only do they desperately need more playmakers to grow and develop with Drew Lock while he’s on his rookie deal, but Denver also has a player in Courtland Sutton that would bring out the best in Ruggs. Sutton showed last year that he’s the type of player who needs to be accounted for on every snap. His status as a true No. 1 across the field from a speed threat like Ruggs with tight end Noah Fant in the middle would give the Broncos the most frightening set of pass-catchers they’ve had since the peak Peyton Manning days.