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NFL draft steal: Raiders' Hunter Renfrow overcomes limitations to thrive in the slot

Yahoo Sports US logo Yahoo Sports US 12/2/2021 Eric Edholm

Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a younger player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow

Las Vegas Raiders

5-foot-10, 175 pounds

2019 NFL draft: Round 5, No. 149 overall

In warmups before the Las Vegas Raiders' Week 3 game against the Miami Dolphins this season, a mic'd-up Hunter Renfrow delivered a message to Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley: "Hey, I can play safety."

It was understated, befitting of the soft-spoken, often overlooked Renfrow who has been defying the football odds since he first walked on at Clemson years before. The boldest statement he'd be captured saying that day? "Hey, they can't stop us."

Renfrow was right. He caught five passes for 77 yards that day, including a 12-yard TD pass in the third quarter that would give the Raiders the lead for the first time after trailing 14-0. The Raiders eventually would prevail in overtime, 31-28, racking up 497 yards of offense. 

He didn't play safety that day, nor has he since — not really, anyway. But Renfrow did his best safety impression the following week against the Chargers. Standing back at his own 15-yard line, awaiting a punt, Renfrow keenly noticed that the Raiders had only 10 men on the field for the return team.

Suddenly, it wasn't a punt ... but a fake. That's when the diminutive returner went to work, making one of the more stunning plays of the 2021 NFL season.

Bradley was impressed, calling it "a perfect strike-zone tackle." Renfrow, who played some DB in high school, seemed less so.

"We didn’t have a guy out there, and I was kind of in between," he said in early October. "I didn’t know if I should play the return or go down and play the receiver. So, luckily, [the punter] took some time to throw the ball and I was able to make a play. 

"It was a big stop for us, I guess.”

Stopping Renfrow has become quite the chore for opponents, too. Nicknamed "Third and Renfrow," the slot receiver earned the title for his chain-moving work on third downs for a Raiders passing game that ranks second in yards and yards per play, despite the in-season release of 2020 first-round receiver Henry Ruggs III.

This season, Renfrow has 64 catches — 11th most in the NFL — for 654 yards and four touchdowns, tying or matching his career bests in all three categories through only 11 games. He's caught at least three passes in every game this season (and in 16 of his past 17 games dating to 2020) and is on pace to top the 1,000-yard mark in 2021.

Video: Week 13 preview: Washington vs. Raiders (NBC Sports)

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So how did this ultra-productive slot machine slip so far in the draft? We look back at Renfrow's scouting profile prior to the 2019 NFL draft.

Despite being one of the league's smaller pass catchers, Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Hunter Renfrow is thriving as a weapon in the slot. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports Despite being one of the league's smaller pass catchers, Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Hunter Renfrow is thriving as a weapon in the slot. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)

Why did Hunter Renfrow slip in the draft?

Renfrow's Clemson career finished with the second of two national title victories over Alabama. But it was the first championship game that made him a forever Tigers legend. 

With only seconds remaining in the 2017 national title game, the Tigers trailed the Crimson Tide, 31-28, at the Alabama 2-yard line. Clemson dialed up a pick play — "Paul right wheel rope crush" was the actual play call — with Renfrow running a speed out to the field, a vicious route that left DB Tony Brown on his heels. Deshaun Watson delivered the strike, Renfrow caught it with one second remaining, and Clemson had won its first national title in 35 years.

Over his four college seasons, Renfrow didn't put up monster statistics — 186 catches, 2,133 yards, 15 TDs in 53 career contests — but established himself as a clutch, reliable performer. Not too shabby for a former high-school option QB who walked on at the school and earned a starting role as a redshirt freshman.

Renfrow, however, entered the 2019 NFL draft with much to prove. In addition to falling below the position standards for height (5-feet-10 1/4), weight (184 pounds) and arm length (29 1/4 inches), Renfrow measured in at the Senior Bowl and later the NFL combine with some of the smallest hands (7 7/8 inches) ever registered by scouts in recent memory — at any position.

One former NFL general manager, after seeing Renfrow walk across the Senior Bowl weigh-in stage with his measurements appearing on the screen above him, muttered under his breath to his colleagues, "Baby hands." They all laughed quietly.

They're not laughing now. But to be fair, Renfrow's physical limitations were a big part of his evaluation. He turned in above-average numbers in the 3-cone drill and short shuttle at the combine but ran a fairly pedestrian 4.59 40-yard dash for his size, so it's easy to see how why there was reasonable skepticism. In a league where corners are typically faster, quicker and often bigger than Renfrow, he'd have to win battles with guile, precision and elite route running.

The Raiders selected him in the middle of Round 5, right about where some league observers expected, and perhaps even a bit earlier. He was the 17th wideout taken that year, and only three receivers from that class (Diontae Johnson, Terry McLaurin and DK Metcalf) have surpassed Renfrow's 168 NFL receptions.

At Clemson, Hunter Renfrow went from walk-on to Tigers legend. But the NFL was still skeptical. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports At Clemson, Hunter Renfrow went from walk-on to Tigers legend. But the NFL was still skeptical. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

How we viewed Renfrow as a prospect

Renfrow didn't make our top 100 overall prospects in the 2019 draft class, and we ended up writing very little about him before the draft (after our return to Yahoo Sports in March of that year). But we did see his natural separation ability, route-running craft and natural hands — despite their size — up close in Mobile that year. (So did the Raiders, as their staff coached one of the two teams that year.)

But like others, we viewed him as a slot-only option in the NFL whose lack of size, speed and play strength figured to be fairly big hurdles, despite everything he'd overcome to that point. And though he'd played in so many college games, we couldn't help but notice he left a fair number of them early with injuries, casting doubt as to whether Renfrow's durability would hold up in the NFL.

Our surprise wasn't what range he was drafted in but rather which team(s) didn't select him. It felt more likely that a team such as the Patriots, who had revolutionized the slot position with similar players such Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, might select Renfrow. If not them, we figured another team that had hired former Patriots coaches might value him higher than other clubs.

Future forecast

It's easy to view Renfrow as a fixture for the Raiders for the next several years, health willing. Derek Carr has called him "an amazing football player," and Renfrow is coming off career bests in Week 12 with eight catches for 134 yards in the Raiders' season-saving win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

Renfrow's usage has increased seemingly by the game, both on offense as well as on punt returns. He currently ranks sixth in the league in yards per return a year after he finished second in the NFL in that. category. 

Renfrow is leading the Raiders in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns this season and second only to Darren Waller in targets. With defenses more prone to honing in on Waller, Renfrow has made himself one of the team's MVPs by consistently giving Carr an open target.

On third downs, Renfrow has been at his best. Carr has looked for him on 28 third-down passes, and Renfrow has turned those into 21 catches, 218 yards, two touchdowns and two defensive penalties drawn. Six of those catches have come in the final three minutes of first and second halves.

From the looks of it, "Third and Renfrow" should continue being a thing for a long time if he can stay healthy.


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