Top WR Prospects Mini-Series Part I: Henry Ruggs III
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
The Broncos are in the market for a wide receiver. No need for a statement from John Elway or Vic Fangio—it's transparently clear given the state of the roster. Luckily, this year's crop of wideouts is expected to rival the historically great class of 2014, which produced the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, Brandin Cooks, Jarvis Landry, John Brown, and...drumroll...Cody Latimer.
Denver swung and missed the last time around when they picked Latimer in round two of the draft. This year the Broncos are stepping back up to the plate, possibly in the first round. If they do spend their first on a wideout, Elway and company will likely be targeting one of three prospects: Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, or CeeDee Lamb.
This mini-series explores the aspects of each player's game that stand out on tape. All three bring something unique to the table and would add a novel element to the Broncos' offense. But do any of them warrant the 15th overall pick?
Part I begins with an examination of Henry Ruggs III.
No doubt about it, Henry Ruggs III is FAST.
The poor DB. He's lined up 12 yards off Ruggs at the start of the play and still gets burnt to a crisp. Ruggs has to turn all the way around to make the catch, but that only means he gets to outrun him again on the way to the house.
But how good of a football player is he? And how often can we expect to see the type of jaw-dropping highlights that his phenomenal athleticism makes possible?
Working the Sideline
Some of my favorite Ruggs plays come from the 2019 Auburn game. It was an intense, hard-fought contest in which the Tigers eked out a 48–45 victory. You can feel how badly each side wanted to win when watching Ruggs battle the Auburn CBs. In this play the corner lines up right on top of Ruggs (top of the screen) and is physical with him during the route, pushing him towards the sideline.
But Ruggs is up to the challenge. The CB has to respect the deep route, so when Ruggs puts his foot in the ground he generates a ton of separation. He also does a good job of being physical himself, controlling the corner with his left hand and getting his eyes back to the QB early in the route. This allows him to make a strong play on the ball as soon as it's released.
A few minutes later in the third quarter there's an incredibly similar play. The corner again tries to push Ruggs to the boundary, but Ruggs' physicality at the top of the route earns him space to make a play on the ball.
These are the sorts of plays that show Ruggs is more than just an athlete. It's true that Ruggs' speed forces the CB to take the deep threat seriously. But the reception only happens because Ruggs is able to layer football skills on top of his athleticism—the wherewithal to get his eyes back to the QB, the physicality throughout the route to keep the corner from pinning him to the sideline, and the ability and timing to make a play on the back shoulder pass.
However, the Auburn CB eventually figures Ruggs out. On the next few plays of the same drive he's so thoroughly blanketed that he can hardly run his route.
The problem is that Ruggs is only using one release. If you watch the above four plays, his first move off the line of scrimmage is the same each time. This is bad, and shows up in more than just the Auburn game.
Here he is using the same stutter and go release against South Carolina.
While it's an improvement that in this rep he includes a swipe with his left arm to clear the CB's hands, it still isn't fooling anyone. Later in the quarter Alabama faces a third and 11. Ruggs attempts the same release but the corner—who knows it's coming—blocks it so thoroughly that Ruggs fails to even present a target to the QB, let alone get open.
Later in the same game Ruggs tries a different release, jabbing outside before attacking inside (this time from the bottom of the screen). But it's anemic and the corner still swallows the route.
Ruggs needs to develop additional releases. As it stands his performance against press coverage is concerning.
The poor releases might not be a major concern if Ruggs ran excellent routes. But he doesn't. What stands out when watching Ruggs is a fundamental lack of creativity. His routes are basic, without any added deception or nuance. In theory, that might be ok—Ruggs' absurd athleticism might be enough to generate separation when running crisp but vanilla routes. But it just doesn't turn out that way.
The Alabama vs LSU game is rife with examples of Ruggs failing to get open. Here he is running a slant against Kristian Fulton (top of the screen), a top cornerback prospect in his own right.
Fulton bumps Ruggs at the line and is in his hip pocket the entire route. From about three steps into the route you can tell Fulton knows exactly where Ruggs is going. Zero separation, easy pass break-up. Here's another slant against Fulton from later in the game (bottom of the screen).
What stands out is that Ruggs' explosiveness doesn't come through on these routes. He looks pedestrian, and that, combined with his bland route, allows Fulton to completely erase him.
And it's not only Fulton that stuck to him like glue in this game. Here's true freshman Cordale Flott denying another slant.
What's more, it's not just the slant where Ruggs struggles. On this play he's supposed to run a speed out from the slot. He has a two-way go and athleticism to spare so he should be able to separate. But instead he stumbles into the break and just kind of crashes into the CB. It's yet another rep where he's so completely blanketed that he fails to present a target to the QB, let alone get open.
His struggles culminate in a high-leverage third and two play from the LSU five yard line. Alabama is down 39–27 with five minutes left in the game. They need a touchdown. The CB is lined up directly on top of Ruggs with a slight inside shade, just like they've been playing him all game (top of the screen). The ball is snapped, and Ruggs...dances, failing to get off the line. Again, he doesn't even present a target to the QB.
It's not as though getting open is flat-out impossible against this LSU secondary. For example, Van Jefferson (a prospect receiving much less hype) had success running slants and flat-breaking routes on the Tiger CBs despite being a significantly worse athlete than Ruggs. His success shows that creativity can be more important than athleticism when it comes to generating separation. In this clip he runs a slant from the bottom of the screen.
And here he runs an arrow route from between the hash marks and the numbers.
Jefferson succeeds through inventiveness and deception, coming up with a compelling way to sell the in-breaking routes as out-breaking. On each route he pushes upfield and then hovers a bit, decelerating and threatening both directions. When he breaks hard outside the corner bites, allowing him to change direction again and win inside position. Ruggs doesn't approach his routes with anywhere near this level of imagination, and as a result doesn't generate the same amount of separation.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, playing off-coverage or bail technique against Ruggs is how you'll get burned. It might feel safe to play with a cushion, but DBs that try to keep up while he runs free will fail. He's just too fast. The post-corner and sluggo (a slant into a go) routes are especially devastating. The first clip in this article shows a post-corner; here's a sluggo as another example of how tough it is to keep up with Ruggs when he's unimpeded.
Henry Ruggs III is not on track to become Tyreke Hill. He has similar game-breaking athleticism, but his releases and route running are works in progress. At this point Ruggs is primarily a field stretching specialist (both vertically on deep routes and horizontally on screens and jet motion). Hill, on the other hand, threatens all three levels of the field. And it just isn't wise to bet on Ruggs to evolve into a similar type of multidimensional player in his transition from the college to the pros. Fundamental changes to a player's game can happen, but they are the exception, not the rule. Better comps for Ruggs are Will Fuller, Mike Wallace, and even Ted Ginn Jr.—players that have explosive down-field ability, but are ultimately specialists.
The question, then, is whether that sort of player is worth a first round pick. The elite, most innovative offenses in the NFL today offer two relevant lessons.
The best offenses feature wide receiver specialists with complementary skill sets. This lesson comes courtesy of Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, and Sean Payton, some of the league's preeminent offensive schemers. Their pass-catching units are all comprised of receivers with unique traits that thrive when attacking different areas of the field.
Speed kills. Lesson two comes courtesy of the Chiefs. Andy Reid has long prioritized having speed on his offenses, and his current unit is not only his most successful but also his fastest. Perhaps that is not a coincidence.
Both lessons argue in favor of Ruggs becoming a Bronco. He complements Courtland Sutton's big game perfectly by adding an element of elite speed that the offense has lacked for years. Ruggs' addition would also give the Broncos a speed edge at two positions—Z WR and TE—and push the offense one step closer to the Reid model.
I find myself thinking about those two lessons when trying to decide whether Ruggs is worth a first round pick. Given his college performance I would not bet on Ruggs to develop into a star. So for me, whether the Broncos should take him comes down to whether drafting a speed specialist is worth a first round pick.
In other years Ruggs might be the right pick, but the depth of this WR class makes me think it's better to pass on him at 15. There are high quality speed receivers to be had in later rounds, whereas there's a greater drop-off in talent at other positions.
Perhaps you disagree with me and think it's worth gambling on Ruggs making the sorts of developmental leaps necessary to become a well rounded star. His athleticism is certainly tempting. But in the end, I think that what you get with Ruggs is a receiver that will almost always be the fastest, but seldom the best player on the field.