After finishing 8-8 in 2020, Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders would like nothing more than to pillage in 2021—wrecking what will undoubtedly be a tough AFC West division alongside the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, and Los Angeles Chargers.
Gruden and the Raiders possess a lot of young talent finally coming into their own and have a chance to make the NFL Playoffs in 2021 if the pieces fall into place.
In order for that to happen, though, somebody has to erupt for a breakout season. Here are three players who could make the leap for the Raiders.
Breakout Player No. 1: Henry Ruggs III, WR
Henry Ruggs is the easy and obvious choice for a potential breakout season with the Raiders after posting a teasing and tantalizing rookie year in 2020.
The former Alabama star flashed his speed often in his inaugural NFL campaign, where he finished with 26 catches, 452 yards receiving, and two touchdowns. He also added nine rushes for 49 yards and posted seven kick returns for 141 yards. All told, he was fairly productive with Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota under center, but maybe fell a shade short of first-round, top-15 expectations.
Still, there’s so much to like with Ruggs in this offense. He was targeted 43 times in 2020 (fifth-best for the Raiders), and with second-leading receiver Nelson Agholor (82 targets, 48 catches) off to the new-look New England Patriots, Carr is going to be looking for other targets this year. Ruggs, when involved, was also a dreamy spot for his quarterbacks. He only dropped three passes, and Carr/Mariota combined for a 102.1 passer rating and just one interception when targeting him against opposing secondaries.
Ruggs posted a 4.27 40-yard dash and a 42-inch vertical coming into the 2020 NFL Draft, and at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, he’s got a great chance at becoming a consistent 1,000-yard receiver—particularly when he has TE Darren Waller, RB Josh Jacobs, and WR Hunter Renfrow splashed around him.
Prediction: 50 catches, 965 yards, 6 TDs
Henry Ruggs III with an absurd highlight-reel catch 😳
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 11, 2020
Breakout Player No. 2: Trayvon Mullen, DB
What a find Trayvon Mullen has become for the Raiders defense.
Selected in the second round and the 40th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the former Clemson standout followed up a strong rookie campaign at right corner (10 starts, one interception, 10 pass deflections, 50 tackles) with an even better 2020. He moved to left corner and finished with 64 tackles, 14 pass deflections (tied for 12th in the NFL), and added two interceptions, including a rare mistake from division rival and annual MVP contender in Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes.
Quarterbacks were relatively successful when challenging Mullen last season (62.1 percent completion rate, 93.1 passer rating, 54 total completions, 620 yards), but there’s little chance his role diminishes this year, especially after seeing 86 percent of the Raiders’ defensive snap counts in 2020. The shift from right side to left side is a bit of an adjustment, and after a PFF grade of 55.3 in 2020, there’s room for improvement for Mullen.
Look for that to come in 2021.
Prediction: 60 tackles, 16 pass deflections, 3 INTs, 58% completion rate allowed, 85.2 passer rating
Breakout Player No. 3: Maxx Crosby, DE
The Raiders entered last season as the league’s 11th youngest team (average age: 25.8) and they only got younger with a robust 2021 NFL Draft class and undrafted free agency.
Among one of their younger pieces is defensive end Maxx Crosby, heading into his third season as a professional. Selected in the fourth round and with the 104th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the former Eastern Michigan star won’t even be 24 years old until August 22. And after playing in all 16 games with 10 starts in 2019 (10 sacks), he started all 16 for the Raiders last year, finishing with seven sacks, 14 tackles-for-loss, and 13 quarterback hits.
Crosby’s 2020 season was actually a slight step back from his electric 2019 rookie campaign when he finished with four forced fumbles, four pass deflections, and more total tackles. Still, it’s not like the talent isn’t there, and Crosby’s durability was fully on display last season, appearing on 83 percent of the Raiders’ defensive snap counts.
Prediction: 40 tackles, 10 sacks, 15 tackles-for-loss, two forced fumbles
— NFL (@NFL) March 10, 2020
Bonus Breakout: Carson Williams, TE
In the same vein as guys like Tony Gonzalez, DeAndre Hopkins, and Antonio Gates, former Western Kentucky power forward Carson Williams has made the switch from college basketball to professional football. And apparently, the Las Vegas Raiders liked him so much, they signed him to a one-year, $660,000 deal at tight end—despite the fact he hasn’t played organized football since eighth grade.
It’s hard to tell where Williams, the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, fits on the Raiders roster, and especially since Darren Waller is going to absorb most of the tight end targets. But at 6-foot-5 with a 4.70 40-yard dash and a 38-inch vertical, maybe Gruden has a place for him somewhere.
— WKU Hilltopper Basketball (@WKUBasketball) January 24, 2021
Also, Williams’ decision to go to the NFL isn’t exactly a massive surprise. WKU has produced another such product in George Fant, who went from the hardwood to the gridiron in Bowling Green, Kentucky, before signing with the Seattle Seahawks in 2016 as an offensive tackle/tight end. Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle and Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee are also WKU alumni.
Williams probably isn’t going to electrify anyone right out of the gate and might not even finish with a single catch on the year. But if he comes away with any major production for the Raiders, it’ll feel like a true breakout because he hasn’t had a meaningful snap since middle school.