Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Hunter Renfrow hopped in his truck and hit the road for nearly 2,500 miles from Las Vegas to his hometown of Myrtle Beach, S.C., in January.
The long drive was the first step in a process that allowed the 27-year-old to clear his mind following the rare year of football where he “didn’t have the most fun.” The 2021-2022 Pro Bowler entered the 2022-2023 season with the highest expectations of his career, but it ended up producing the fewest results.
Injuries sidelined Renfrow for most of the season and he had more fumbles, including one that proved a game-losing play in overtime against the Arizona Cardinals, than touchdowns (three and two, respectively).
“It was a long season, and so, I just got home,” Renfrow said in a news conference after a practice at Raiders’ headquarters last week. “The last two summers I stayed out here, this summer I went back home and just got back to fundamentals, back to the basics, back to why you love the game. The biggest thing I learned through it all was just to control what I can control.”
It’s still early in training camp with only five practices completed and the first one with pads scheduled for this morning, but so far, Renfrow’s new mindset appears to be paying off. The slot receiver has comfortably been Las Vegas’ top-performing skill player so far.
The Raiders’ offense has looked shaky with new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returning from foot surgery and even superstar receiver Davante Adams dropping a couple passes. But Renfrow has reminded why he was nicknamed “the Slot Machine” upon the team’s move to Las Vegas.
He’s been money, catching everything in sight from a downfield pass by backup quarterback Brian Hoyer in between two defenders, a low ball from rookie Aidan O’Connell that required a knee-slide and numerous short, midfield targets from Garoppolo.
“Man, he’s crafty, not even physically but like mentally too,” new receiver Jakobi Meyers said of Renfrow. “The way he puts routes together or thinks about routes before he even runs them, it’s a unique skillset. He’s another one of those guys who’s earned every compliment he’s gotten.”
Many assumed the Raiders’ successful free-agency pursuit of Meyers, who broke into the NFL as a slot receiver under Raiders coach Josh McDaniels with the Patriots, made Renfrow expendable. Renfrow was subject to trade rumors all offseason while he watched some of his “best friends” on the Raiders like former quarterback Derek Carr and tight end Foster Moreau not brought back.
There’s still a chance Renfrow could be dealt before the Raiders’ regular-season opener at the Broncos on Sept. 10 but the two-year, $32 million contract extension he signed before last season makes a deal difficult to execute.
Even if such a move is an aim of McDaniels and general manager Dave Zielger, Renfrow said he had spoken with the pair and asserted his desire to remain with the Raiders into his fifth NFL season.
“Without getting into specifics, (the talks were) good,” Renfrow said. “Hopefully I can just prove them right for resigning me.”
Renfrow’s resigning before last season was seen as anything but a surprise given how similar undersized-but-sharp receivers in the past, including new Raider assistant coach Danny Amendola, have thrived in offenses designed by McDaniels. Although Renfrow grew close with Carr, his fit on the field could conceivably improve with Garoppolo.
Connecting with receivers in tight windows on quick throws near the line of scrimmage has been one of the foremost strengths of the former 49er and Patriot passer. And it appears like Renfrow and Garoppolo have already developed a rapport with the receiver complimenting the quarterback’s steadiness, winning history and concluding he “can’t say enough good things about him.”
“I felt like I let a lot of my teammates down last year,” Renfrow said. “That’s something that’s left a bad taste in my mouth and something I want to get over and prove to them through the spring and also going into the season that I’m a guy they can count on.”
The Raiders counted on Renfrow in a big way when they made the playoffs two years ago as he circumstances conspired to leave him as the top receiving threat for the second half of the season. He responded by ranking ninth in the NFL with 103 receptions, for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns.
Renfrow is unlikely to ever match the career-high 128 targets he commanded that season again, especially next to Adams, but there was reason to believe his opportunities could be cut even further down this year coming into training camp. Meyers isn’t the only new Raider receiver capable of playing in the slot this season, as the team also drafted Tre Tucker in the third round out of Cincinnati and signed another former Patriot in Phillip Dorsett.
McDaniels is giving no indications that the additions were made with the intention of moving on from Renfrow at training camp though, neither with the amount of repetitions he’s giving the veteran nor his words.
“Hunter is healthy, ready to roll and came back this spring and had a great mindset, great attitude, great approach,” McDaniels said. “It’s just been exciting to see him. He’s out there, he’s doing his thing and he’s the same guy. He’s working to improve himself and help other guys get better as well.”
That’s been evident to anyone who’s seen any of the first set of practices, including the hundreds of invited fans in the bleachers. Renfrow has caused some of the loudest roars of applause with impressive catches reminiscent of ones he grabbed throughout his career season two years ago.
He said the fan-favorite reception he’s received has given him “an extra step.” It’s helping to make football fun again.
“I feel like I’m in a lot better place than I was at this time last year,” Renfrow said.