Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020 | 9 a.m.
Music blared out of a set of brand-new, state-of-the-art speakers, coaches barked clear instructions with rested offseason vocal chords, and pads clashed from collisions between offensive and defensive linemen.
The decibel level at practices during the Raiders’ first Las Vegas training camp was never low, and players’ voices often rose above the noise anyway. When someone made a big play, they usually let their teammates know about it.
There was one notable exception. The player whose performance may have spoken loudest might have been most the silent. Raiders rookie receiver and top draft pick Henry Ruggs III would catch multiple deep passes a day and not say a word, instead jogging back to the line of scrimmage or sideline to get ready for the next repetition.
“He’s very focused,” says running back Josh Jacobs, Ruggs’ closest friend on the team. “He just puts his head down and works.”
NFL teams are notorious for swinging wildly between personality types among their head coaches. If a fiery, motivational type coach didn’t work out, the next hire is often a more laid-back, cerebral type.
For the Raiders, that dichotomy apparently extends to No. 1 receivers. Last offseason, in a desperate attempt to add a big-play threat to the offense, the Raiders signed Antonio Brown, possibly the NFL’s best receiver of the past decade after nine years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Brown came with baggage, though. He had developed a reputation as a poor teammate over the years and become known as much for his elaborate touchdown celebrations and brash demeanor as his on-field production. The Raiders hoped a change of scenery would help. It didn’t.
A soap opera between player and organization played out on HBO’s Hard Knocks and Brown’s own self-produced YouTube channel, culminating in his release before he ever played a game for the Raiders.
Given that experience, it’s no surprise Raiders general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden emphasized finding a character fit for their next prospective top receiver. Ruggs’ play in college at Alabama was flashy—he averaged 17.5 yards per reception over three years and scored on nearly 30 percent of his catches—but everything else was workmanlike.
He didn’t mind settling into a role as one of many stars on Crimson Tide teams alongside future pros like Jacobs. Ruggs was never even more than a secondary receiving option behind current Denver Bronco Jerry Jeudy, who had 61 more career receptions than Ruggs over the same three seasons.
“We had to share the ball and share the love,” Ruggs says. “Everyone has the goods to make plays. With that group of guys, it only makes you better. It makes you want to take advantage of every opportunity, fuels you to be competitive.”
Ruggs resolved to bring the same attitude to the Raiders after they selected him with the No. 12 overall selection in April’s NFL Draft—a surprising three picks ahead of where the Broncos took Jeudy. Coronavirus restrictions meant rookies would not have access to team facilities as in most years, but quarterback Derek Carr was organizing unofficial offseason workouts locally, and Ruggs wanted to attend as many as possible.
He flew out from his home in Montgomery, Alabama, for a couple of the initial sessions, but then his plans were interrupted. While helping a friend move in late May, Ruggs punctured his leg.
“Of course, at first you think of the worst, but after saw the doctors, they told me what was going on,” Ruggs says. “They gave me the breakdown and told me pretty much I’d be back to 100 percent in no time. And actually kind of being a hard head, I tried to do more than the doctors said I could do or what I should do, and that only helped speed up the process.”
Even as Ruggs adopted an active recovery, he knew team workouts were out of the question. He traveled to Las Vegas once more to watch Carr throw to other Raiders and pick his new quarterback’s brain, but otherwise he concentrated his preparation in Montgomery by running routes at half-speed, lifting weights and studying the Raiders’ playbook.
That studiousness might have backfired when the Raiders opened training camp in late July. Ruggs struggled in the first few practices, looking perhaps too mechanical while failing to establish a rhythm with Carr and dropping a few passes.
Carr shouldered a large part of the blame, saying it took him time to get accustomed to Ruggs’ speed. Ruggs arrives as one of the fastest players in the NFL, having run a Draft Combine-best 4.27-second 40-yard dash. That otherworldly speed was the primary reason the Raiders made him the first receiver taken this year. But his work ethic and temperament weren’t insignificant factors, either.
“It’s in his DNA to want to be great,” says Nelson Agholor, the Raiders’ most veteran receiver. “I try to tell him not to focus on putting pressure on himself, because he does have talent around him. If anything, play fast and play with no hesitation because you’ve got guys that have got your back and a coaching staff that will really have your back. They are going to put you in a position to be successful.”
With encouragement from Jacobs and Agholor, Ruggs quickly settled down and arguably became the standout performer of preseason practices. He blazed past defenders on everything from jet sweeps to deep go routes.
By all accounts, he was also an exemplary citizen. Ruggs took Gruden’s repeated team-wide pleas to “crush the virus” by limiting potential exposure to heart. He briefly explored the Strip and took a Maverick Helicopters tour with longtime girlfriend Kiara Washington when he moved to town in June, but otherwise the couple have hunkered down at home with their newborn daughter.
“He’s a great kid, has been brought up well, great family,” Gruden says. “Credit to his mom and dad. He’s just a hardworking, no-nonsense, day-to-day, consistent grinder. We just love him. … He’s got a bright future ahead of him I think, as long as we don’t screw him up.”
Two of Ruggs’ biggest splurges since signing a 4-year, $16.67 million contract went to his loved ones. Before he left Montgomery, he surprised his mother with her dream car, a new Chevrolet Traverse. Upon arriving in Las Vegas, he did the same for Washington, gifting her a custom-made, bright-yellow Ford Mustang.
In a picture posted to his social media, he made sure to point out that he “ain’t braggin’ but I came from nuthin’.” In an age where the stereotype of a top receiver is a me-first, flamboyant personality, Ruggs goes out of his way to stay humble.
The Raiders were drawn to his unassuming nature and quiet confidence from the beginning, and they’ve only become more convinced of its fit on their roster over time.
“My commitment is to the team; I’m 100 percent a team player,” Ruggs says. “I’m out here to do a job, and that’s to help the 11 guys on the field get a win. Whatever my job is, that’s what I’m going to do.”