Who’s in, who’s out and who needs to step up
The Las Vegas Raiders, along with the rest of the NFL, had a lot of tough decisions to make during Tuesday’s final roster cutdown. A big part of that was getting the wide receiver position group right.
Ever since his return to the Raiders’ sideline, wideouts have been a thorn in Jon Gruden’s side. He tried signing free agents like Tyrell Williams, trading for he who we shall not speak of and even drafted a few players. But every year the position has been a weak spot on the Raiders’ roster.
With the final roster set and ready to go for the 2021 season, a few questions arise. Most notably, what is going to make this year different than the past? What does the position group even look like? And who needs to step up now that the depth chart is established?
John Brown, DJ Turner, Dillon Stoner and Keelan Doss
We’ll start by looking at who’s no longer on the roster and the most surprising cut in the position group had to be John Brown.
While the veteran only signed a one-year $3.75 million deal, he was brought in to be a major contributor and take some of the pressure of Henry Ruggs III. However, Brown battled injuries at the end of his tenure in Buffalo and appears to have lost a step, catching just one pass on three targets for two yards in the preseason. After taking 25 snaps in San Francisco this weekend, the writing was on the wall and the former Bill asked to be released, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
With Brown removed from the equation, it was a bit of a surprise to see Las Vegas cut both DJ Turner and Dillon Stoner. Gruden has always kept six wide receivers in the past but is currently rolling with five.
However, Turner and Stoner are candidates to land on the team’s practice squad if they clear waivers, and the team kept two wideouts on the p-squad last year, so their tenures with the Silver and Black are far from over. The NFL is carrying over the same COVID-19 roster rules as last season where players can be called up, up to 90 minutes before kickoff so it really isn’t that much different than them making the final roster.
Turner will serve as a backup slot receiver and as a punt/kick return option. During the games that don’t count, he was fairly productive with 11 catches on 13 targets for 77 yards, 42 of which came after the catch. He also led the team in yards per kickoff and punt return, with 19.3 and 10.3 yards per attempt, respectively.
Stoner also handled kick and punt return duties but wasn’t as productive, averaging 13.2 yards per kick return and 6.3 per punt return. Offensively, he’s more of an outside receiver and was rather quiet until the final game of the preseason, where he exploded for three catches and 69 receiving yards. The Oklahoma State product finished the month with nine targets, five grabs and 91 yards.
As for Doss, he was productive compared to his peers – eight catches on 11 targets for 83 yards – but had an ugly drop that led to an interception and barely contributed on special teams, recording just four snaps as a specialist in the preseason.
This will likely mark the end of the Alameda native’s tenure with the Raiders, as he’s bounced back and forth between the practice squad and active roster over the last three years. At this point, he’s probably better off trying his luck elsewhere.
Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow, Willie Snead and Zay Jones
The release of Brown brings some added pressure to Ruggs. Last year, Ruggs was used almost more as a decoy to open up the field for other receivers, and Brown was supposed to serve as a second speed/deep threat to create more opportunities for Ruggs.
Obviously, that plan won’t come to fruition and now the onus is back on the Alabama product to create those opportunities for himself. Gruden’s scheme and play calling will of course play a factor in that as well, but Ruggs needs to be able to get open in the short to intermediate areas of the field to become the alpha of this receiving corps. That’s why the organization made him the 12th overall pick and first wide receiver off the board in last year’s draft class.
Also looking to make a leap from their rookie season is Bryan Edwards. Edwards showed flashes of brilliance last season but ultimately, was hindered by injuries and never quite reached his full potential in year one. At 6’3” and 212 pounds, the former Gamecock projects to be a red zone threat, and has drawn comparisons to a couple of hall of famers during training camp so obviously, he’ll play a key role in the team’s offense this year.
For Hunter Renfrow, his role really hasn’t changed much from 2020 to 2021. The third-down threat will again be the team’s starting slot receiver and serve as ole reliable for quarterback Derek Carr. During his two professional seasons, Renfrow has recorded 605 and 656 receiving yards respectively, and a realistic expectation would be for him to float around the 700- to 800-yard mark this year.
Willie Snead was a free agent signing who turned some heads during practice and snuck his way onto the final roster. As mentioned above, Brown was expected to be the veteran presence of the group but Snead beat him out during training camp. The latter will serve as the team’s fourth receiver and has a proven track record of success in the slot.
The biggest question facing Snead in 2021 is how effective can he be on the outside as that will allow Gruden to put him on the field more often. As a rookie back in 2015, Snead fell just short of the 1,000-yard mark while taking 67.2 percent of his snaps out wide, but he’s been far more productive when lined up inside ever since.
A few months ago, it looked like Zay Jones was a dead man walking. He struggled to see the field and only managed to haul in 34 receptions for 301 yards and one touchdown in 26 games as a Raider. However, Gruden continued to sing Jones’ praises during the offseason and the world got to see what the coach was talking about during the preseason game against Seattle.
In that contest, the six-year veteran caught all three targets thrown his way and had 57 receiving yards on just 13 snaps. Now, Jones is firmly cemented on the roster and should have a decent-sized role as the team’s fifth receiver. The biggest thing he needs to prove is that he can contribute on special teams, which is something Las Vegas hasn’t asked him to do in the past.
Will this year be different?
While yes, it’s easy to say this time of year that the Raiders will get more out of their receiving corps than in the past, I genuinely expect this position group to be much improved from last season.
Everyone but Snead was around last year so there’s plenty of continuity with Carr for the position group as a whole. That combined with having three young players who are developing individually should prove to be fruitful for the Silver and Black. Wide receiver is a position that can take players a year or two to develop in the NFL, so Ruggs and Edwards should make big strides as sophomores and Renfrow will continue to grow as a junior.
If Snead can stay productive as he has throughout his career, and if Jones can finally break through, then this position group can flip the script and emerge as one of the team’s strengths.
The Raiders have a good mix of young talent and proven veterans that they really haven’t had in the Gruden 2.0 era. In the past few years, it’s been one or the other so that alone is a reason for optimism.
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