Speed Kills: Inside the long legacy Henry Ruggs III joins

Speed kills.

It's a self-evident truth in the National Football League. Team speed, individual top-end speed, speed off the edge, even speed along the offensive line is a valuable commodity in today's NFL. During the first 40 years of the NFL's existence, players with blinding speed were not commonplace.

The American Football League changed all that with a wide-open, exciting brand of football that featured a bevy of­­­ players with the ability to take the top off a defense.

No other team exemplified this new way of thinking and playing the game than the Raiders.

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When Al Davis joined the Raiders as Head Coach and General Manager in 1963, his philosophy on offense included a score-from-anywhere-on-the-field mentality.

"We were going to stretch the field vertically," Mr. Davis said. "When we came out of the huddle we weren't looking for first downs. We didn't want to move the chains. We wanted touchdowns. We wanted the big play, the quick strike."

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That quick-strike ability materialized in the form of running back Clem Daniels.

Daniels finished his career as the AFL's all-time leading rusher, whose longest career plays from scrimmage were a 74-yard run and a 73-yard reception. Meanwhile, next to Daniels on the outside, Art Powell possessed that blazing speed at wide receiver. From 1963 to 1966, Powell averaged 17.7 yards per catch and caught 50 touchdown passes.

The Raiders got even faster in 1964, adding Heisman winner Billy Cannon. A former running back moved to tight end, his speed helped redefine the position, as Cannon created mismatches all of the field. He averaged 16.9 yards per catch from 1964 to 1969 and hauled in 25 touchdowns.

Enter wide receiver Warren Wells.

During his time in Silver and Black, Wells averaged a whopping 23.3 yards per catch including a jaw-dropping 26.8 in 1969. He caught 156 passes for 3,634 yards and 42 TDs. His longest play from scrimmage went for 94 yards.

Then, in 1972, the Raiders drafted Colorado track and football star Cliff Branch.

He was the Big Eight Indoor Champion in the 60-yard dash two years in a row in 1971 and 1972. Paired with "possession" receiver Fred Biletnikoff, Branch set the post AFL-NFL merger league on fire. Branch caught 501 passes for 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns, including a team record and NFL-record tying 99-yarder. He helped the Raiders win three Super Bowls, ranks fourth all-time in playoff receiving yardage in NFL history, and is widely considered one of the greatest deep threats to ever play the game.

In 1980, the Raiders added running back Kenny King, who, by all accounts, added an element of speed the Raiders had been missing. King recorded the longest run in the NFL that year, 89 yards against the San Diego Chargers. Not to mention, King helped the Raiders win two Super Bowls.

In 1986, Auburn running back Bo Jackson ran what has to be considered the fastest pre-Draft 40-yard dash in NFL history. Jackson ran a 4.13 at what would be termed a region combine in today's parlance. The Raiders selected the multi-sport star in the 7th round of the 1987 NFL Draft after Jackson declined to play for Tampa Bay. Soon after, the Raiders added Hall of Famer James Lofton, a track star in the long jump and 200m at Stanford. During his two years with the Raiders, he averaged 20.7 yards per catch. And he wasn't the only track star — speedster and would-be Olympian Willie Gault played for the Raiders for five years and averaged 20 yards per catch.

The Raiders drafted Notre Dame wide receiver and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown in 1988.

Brown was clocked at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash. He went on to become the leading receiver in Raiders history. His storied Hall of Fame career has been well-documented.

A few other notable speedsters since 1990:

  • Olympian and track star Sam Graddy
  • Alexander Wright, a two-time winner of the NFL's Fastest Man competition
  • Olympic sprinter and wide receiver James Jett.
  • Defensive back James Trapp, an alternate on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team

And this says nothing about the recent Raiders that have clocked sub-4.4 40s at the combine. That elite fraternity includes Carlos Francis, Fabian Washington, Stanford Routt, Michael Huff, Tyvon Branch, Darren McFadden, Louis Murphy, Darrius Heyward-Bey... The list goes on.

This is the legacy that Henry Ruggs III enters into as a member of the Silver and Black. After running a 4.27 at the combine as the fastest man in the 2020 draft, he appears ready to make his own mark as the first draft pick in Las Vegas Raiders history.

The Raiders' first-round (12th overall) pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, is known as the fastest prospect from this year's draft class. Take a look back at photos of other famous speedsters from Raiders history.

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