From 2014 to 2017, no quarterback in the NFL suffered more dropped passes by his receivers than the Raiders’ Derek Carr.
Upon Jon Gruden’s return to Oakland, he set out to address that ugly stat. He sent away the most egregious of droppers, and brought in several new receivers, most notably Jordy Nelson. The overhaul brought about moderate improvement, as the Raiders tied for the seventh-most drops in the NFL in 2018 with 22, after dropping 38 passes the year prior and a whopping 45 drops in 2016.
Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement remaining in that category, and Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have approached the current offseason with that in mind.
First, they traded for Antonio Brown, arguably the top receiver in the league with as good of hands as you’ll find.
They followed that up with the signing of Tyrell Williams, an accomplished receiver in his own right that has the size and athleticism to make tough catches look simple.
And, then, in the fifth round of the draft, they selected a 5-foot-9 receiver with the No. 149 overall pick, who had the smallest hands of any pass-catcher at the NFL Combine.
Not to worry, Raiders fans. Hunter Renfrow has made a habit of playing bigger than he appears.
The same receiver who caught 10 passes for 92 yards and the game-winning touchdown in the 2016 National Championship Game against Alabama, who began at Clemson as a walk-on, has “the best hands of anyone in this entire draft,” according to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah.
Over his final two seasons at Clemson, Renfrow was targeted 143 times. He dropped two of those passes.
Renfrow also caught 66.7 percent of his contested targets in the last two seasons, ranking fourth in the FBS, according to Pro Football Focus.
So how does a diminutive receiver with relatively tiny hands rise from walk-on to NFL draft pick? It starts with the parents, naturally.
Renfrow’s father, Tim, was his football coach at Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But that’s not where Hunter gets his great hands from, according to the man himself.
“I like to credit my mom,” Renfrow said with a smile Friday at the opening of rookie minicamp. “My dad was my high school coach, but my mom would go out there and throw footballs to me, and they were never accurate. They were up here, they were down there, I’d have to be diving everywhere.”
The vast majority of Renfrow’s college receptions came out of the slot. That’s where his expertise lies, but now with the Raiders, he could be asked to line up elsewhere occasionally.
“The big thing for Hunter is that he needs to understand we’re going to move Antonio Brown around a lot,” Gruden said Friday. “If we move Brown a lot, that means he has to be able to move around and do a lot of things. Not just line and be a slot receiver every single down. He could move to the right or left, play inside or outside. He’ll have to do it all.”
Renfrow, to his credit, isn’t daunted by that possibility. While he’s definitely comfortable in the slot, he doesn’t view himself as a specialist.
“Kind of my whole thing is, I’m a receiver,” Renfrow said. “I’m not a slot receiver, I’m not an outside receiver, I’m just a receiver. It’s kind of like playing in the backyard. You’re just expected to go catch a football, and that’s kind of the mentality that I have.”
It’s a good thing Renfrow isn’t intimidated by a challenge, because he’s about to enter a stiff competition.
In addition to Brown and Williams, both Dwayne Harris and free-agent signee Ryan Grant would seem to be locks to make the 53-man roster as receivers. That likely leaves two remaining spots for Renfrow, J.J. Nelson, Marcell Ateman and undrafted free agent Keelan Doss. While the Raiders invested a fifth-round pick in Renfrow, he’ll have to put that versatility on display in order to lock one down.
So, how does Renfrow plan to separate himself from the pack? The answer lies in playing to his strengths.
“I’m not the biggest guy, I’m not the fastest,” Renfrow admitted. “But I feel like I can outthink people at times. I think that’s such a big part of the game that people don’t realize. I mean, you gotta be able to play, definitely, but you can outthink people, outwork people. And a guy who knows what he’s going to do before he does it is a lot more dangerous than a guy who’s out there big and fast, but has no clue what’s going on.”
Renfrow’s relative size and speed disadvantages will only be exacerbated with the move to the NFL, but then again, he’s already proven he has the ability to adjust. After being a two-star recruit coming out of high school, with scholarship offers from football powerhouses Appalachian State, Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian, and Wofford, Renfrow departed Clemson with the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the top college football player who began his career as a walk-on.
As the Raiders remain intent on eliminating drops and with Renfrow now in tow, it appears they couldn’t be in better hands.