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FAB 1. Is Ruggs An Option For Bucs In First Round?

Bucs head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht saw what life was like without the team’s pair of Pro Bowl receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, last year down the stretch.

And it wasn’t pretty.

Tampa Bay’s offense, which was averaging 29.4 points per game from Weeks 9-15, came to a screeching halt without Evans and Godwin. Evans suffered a hamstring strain in Tampa Bay’s 38-35 win on December 8 while catching a very important touchdown pass. Godwin injured his hamstring the next week in a 38-17 win at Detroit after catching five passes for 121 yards.

Even though Breshad Perriman came through with three straight 100-yard games to end the season, it wasn’t enough for Tampa Bay’s offense, which averaged just 17.5 points per game over the last two games of the year. That was nearly two less touchdowns less per contest in a 23-20 loss to Houston and a 28-22 overtime loss to Atlanta in which the Bucs were aided by a defensive score from rookie linebacker Devin White.

The third wide receiver plays between half and two-thirds of the snaps in Arians’ offense depending on the game plan, and if the Bucs are ahead and running ball more or if they are behind and throwing the ball more. That’s a significant amount of snaps and it’s a significant role, which is why Licht signed Perriman to a one-year, $4 million deal despite having Evans and Godwin on the roster, along with Justin Watson, the Bucs’ fifth-round pick from 2018.

And as Licht and Arians found out quickly, the No. 3 receiver becomes the No. 2 receiver when the No. 1 receiver is out, and the No. 3 receiver becomes the No. 1 receiver when both of the top two targets are out.

With Perriman signing with the New York Jets this week, do the Bucs feel comfortable with Watson or Scotty Miller, last year’s sixth-round pick, taking over that all-important role?

I don’t think so, given how the end of last season happened with the Bucs losing both games without Evans and Godwin in the lineup.

I don’t believe Tampa Bay is heading into the 2020 NFL Draft thinking it’s going to select a wide receiver in the first round.

But if the top four offensive tackles – Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, Louisville’s Mekhi Becton and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas – are off the board along with South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, then yes, I could see the Bucs drafting the right receiver – a special one.

Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III
Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III – Photo by: Getty Images

If the top tackles and Kinlaw have been drafted and Tampa Bay is on the clock at No. 14 I could see the team select Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs III.

Ruggs is special.

He’s the kind of special receiver that I think the Bucs would make an exception for.

Ruggs ran a 4.27 at the NFL Scouting Combine in March, which was the fourth-fastest 40-yard dash time for a wide receiver in Indianapolis behind John Ross (4.22), Rondel Menendez (4.24) and Jerome Mathis (4.26).

To put that kind of speed in perspective, Kansas City Pro Bowl receiver Tyreek Hill ran a 4.29 at his pro day.

J.J. Nelson, a receiver Arians helped draft in Arizona, ran a 4.28 at the Combine in 2015.

Licht also loves speed at the receiver position, evidenced by his signing of deep threat DeSean Jackson, who ran a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash, in 2017. Together, Licht and Arians drafted Miller last year after he ran a 4.39 at his Bowling Green pro day.

While selecting Ruggs with the 14th overall pick might raise some eyebrows in the Bucs fan base, that’s about where he’s projected to go. The three teams that have a big need at wide receiver are the Jets, Raiders and 49ers – picking at No. 11, 12 and 13 – right ahead of the Bucs. Ruggs is regarded as the third-best receiver in this year’s draft behind Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Alabama teammate Jerry Jeudy.

If one of those teams, such as San Francisco, deviates and takes a player like Kinlaw then Ruggs to slide to the Bucs. If the top four tackles are off the board, Tampa Bay could pull the trigger and get an explosive playmaker that is faster than Perriman, who ran a 4.35 at his pro day back in 2015, and then address right tackle in the second round and a running back in the third round. The draft is deep at both tackle and halfback, and it may be deepest at wide receiver – but there is only one wideout that has Ruggs’ speed.

Ruggs’ Alabama Career Receiving Stats
2017: 12 rec. for 229 yards (19.1 avg.), 6 TDs
2018: 46 rec. for 741 yards (16.1 avg.), 11 TDs
2019: 40 rec. for 746 yards (18.7 avg.), 7 TDs

Ruggs’ Alabama Career Rushing Stats
2019: 2 carries, 75 yards (37.5 avg.), TD

Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III
Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III – Photo by: Getty Images

Here’s the logic in the Bucs making such a move.

If Tampa Bay drafted Ruggs in the first round it would mean that the team would have his rights for five years with a possible fifth-year option. Evans, who turns 27 this year, is under contract for four more years and he’ll be a free agent at age 31 in 2024.

Evans will have been a Buccaneer for 10 years at that point and the franchise will have to decide whether to let him go and ride with Godwin and Ruggs (and whoever else they add between now and then) as the starters at wide receiver, or bring Evans back on a cheaper, short-term deal in 2024 and keep the trio together for another year or two.

With a cap number around $3.5 million in 2020 as a first-round draft pick, Ruggs will actually be cheaper than Perriman was last year. And with him playing in an Alabama receiving corps with DeVonta Smith and Jeudy, Ruggs is used to sharing the ball and the spotlight.

Is there a better pair of receivers for Ruggs to learn from in the NFL than the Bucs’ Pro Bowl duo? Not really, as he would go to a team with a pair of A-plus workers.

Licht loves drafting receivers, having done so seven times in his six drafts as Tampa Bay’s G.M. with the likes of Evans and Robert Herron in 2014, Kenny Bell and Kaelin Clay in 2015, Godwin in 2017, Watson in 2018 and Miller in 2019.

There is plenty of precedent for using a Top 15 draft pick on a wide receiver, as Evans was the seventh overall pick in 2014. The last time the receiver position was drafted in the Top 15 in the league was back in 2017 when Corey Davis went to the Titans at No. 5, Mike Williams went to the Chargers at No. 7 and Ross went to the Bengals at No. 9.

The 5-foot-11, 194-pound Ross has largely been a bust, playing in just three games as a rookie in 2017, and didn’t record a single catch. He missed three games the next season and started 10 games for the Bengals, recording 21 catches for 210 yards (10 avg.) and seven touchdowns. Last year was Ross’ best in Cincinnati, catching 28 passes for 506 yards (18.1 avg.) with three TDs.

Ross had the all-time best 40-yard dash time in Indy and also excelled in the broad jump (96th all-time percentile at wide receiver), but those skills have yet to turn him into an elite NFL wide receiver.

Ruggs is similarly built at 5-foot-11, 188 pounds, but is a much more dynamic athlete. He had a 42-inch vertical jump (97th percentile all-time at wide receiver) at the NFL Scouting Combine, and a 10-foot-9-inch broad jump (94th percentile) in addition to his blazing 4.27 in the 40-yard dash (98th percentile) that allowed him to be the Crimson Tide’s deep threat, averaging 17.5 yards per catch in his three years playing under Nick Saban. Ruggs also has big, 10-inch hands (90th percentile), too.

Jon Ledyard, PewterReport.com’s Bucs beat writer and NFL Draft expert, would have no issue with Tampa Bay selecting Ruggs in the first round.

“Not only is Ruggs among the three or four fastest football players in the nation, he also knows how to run routes and separate at a high level on all types of patterns,” Ledyard said. “His route tree was among the most diverse of the top receivers in the class, allowing Alabama to get the ball in his hands in all areas of the field, before letting Ruggs’ speed and elusiveness do the rest.

Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III
Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III – Photo by: Getty Images

“Ruggs’ 2019 tape doesn’t offer as many highlights as 2018, when he made a handful of sensational contested catches despite his size, but he has huge hands, elite leaping ability and shows the ability to win in the air like very few smaller receivers can – even in the NFL. Some may compare him to John Ross, but the biggest difference (among many) in their games is that Ruggs can track the ball, adjust to the ball and high-point the ball at a high level. To be an elite vertical threat, those traits are very important.”

If Ruggs were to wind up replacing Perriman as Tampa Bay’s third receiver he wouldn’t arrive as a finished product, and may not even match Perriman’s production of 36 catches for 645 yards (18.4 avg.) and six touchdowns from last year. There are still aspects of Ruggs’ game that need to be worked on and improved upon entering the NFL.

“I don’t think it was laziness, rather Alabama’s offense scheme, but Ruggs will need to run every route at top speed in the NFL,” Ledyard said. “That wasn’t always the case this past season. His lack of production relative to other first-round wide receivers is troubling to a degree, but his situation in Alabama’s offense with four wide receivers that have played at a first-round level for a couple years now is a very unique one.

“Ruggs did an excellent job working off of press coverage in an SEC conference with the best collection of cornerback talent in college football. But the NFL is a very different animal in terms of line of scrimmage play for cornerbacks. The bigger concern is probably avoiding contact within his routes, as Ruggs was slowed by corners who got their hands on him at times, which minimized his separation.”

PewterReport.com isn’t necessarily forecasting Ruggs to Tampa Bay, but it’s our job to prepare Bucs fans for virtually every scenario when it comes to the 2020 NFL Draft. Anything can happen in the draft, and we all saw that unfold in 2017 when tight end O.J. Howard, a Top 10 talent, slid down to the Bucs at No. 19. That was quite a pleasant surprise for Tampa Bay.

Adding a speed demon like Ruggs that could make Tyreek Hill-type plays in red and pewter as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver would be yet another pleasant surprise in the first round.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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