When the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft was winding down, it was surprising to see Calvin Ridley on the board after the top 25 picks were made. As you know, he didn’t last much longer; the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the 26th pick.
Despite being discussed as the top wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft, he wasn’t the first selected. The Carolina Panthers selected Maryland receiver D.J. Moore with the 24th pick. Why did Ridley drop? There’s a handful of reasons. A lot of people will say that he didn’t test as well as D.J. Moore at the NFL Scouting Combine. There are also people against drafting players when they’re going to be 24 years old in their rookie season. But for the most part, teams value each player differently, and their board falls off where their needs are, and again, who they value.
For example, look at the Dallas Cowboys. They had an obvious need for a linebacker, but all signs pointed to them being a team interested in a wide receiver in the first round because they cut Dez Bryant before the draft. With the 19th pick, they selected Leighton Vander Esch, a linebacker out of Boise State. It’s clear that each player is valued differently.
For the Falcons, they had a need for a wide receiver. It doesn’t look as apparent as it does for other teams because the Falcons have Julio Jones, and they also have a great complement in Mohamed Sanu. This past year, they combined for 155 receptions on 244 targets, totaling over 2,100 yards and eight touchdowns. But this offseason, the Falcons lost their number three receiver, Taylor Gabriel, who had 33 receptions for 378 yards and a touchdown last season. Of his 33 receptions, 17 were caught for first downs. So why make a first round pick a number three receiver?
Despite having all these playmakers, the Falcons only scored 22.1 points per game for the 2017 season. That’s a huge drop-off from 2016, when they posted 33.8 points per game. It seemed as if the Falcons would move the ball down the field and then stall in the red-zone. According to TeamRankings, the Falcons ranked 23rd in the NFL in red-zone efficiency at 49.18%. By drafting Ridley, the Falcons now have a player who amassed 10 touchdowns on 43 red-zone targets in college. So it’s not that Ridley is just going to be a number three receiver. He’s going to have a defined role, and it’s going to provide more than just a minimal impact.
Defining Ridley’s Role
After watching six games of Taylor Gabriel’s 2017 season, I noticed that he ran a lot of curls, hitches and slants. He made plenty of plays in the middle of the field, and above is one of the many slant routes he ran. The Packers send five players to create pressure but with the soft cushion on the left side; Gabriel exploits it by running the slant route.
While Gabriel rounded his route, Ridley is much more precise. He doesn’t waste any time with his routes, and there’s no useless motion. He makes it look like he’s going outside and potentially vertical on the cornerback, but then he plants with his right foot and gets inside. Without question, I thought he was the most precise route runner in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Taylor Gabriel had the versatility to play anywhere on the field, from playing as an ‘X’ receiver to a ‘Z’. On the play above, he’s playing as the ‘Z’ receiver and runs a curl. You’ll notice he gets open relatively easily, but he certainly rounds this route.
Calvin Ridley is playing as the ‘X’ receiver and runs an identical route. He’s much more precise and efficient with his routes. Sliding into a role to run these routes won’t be difficult for Ridley.
Like I’ve mentioned before, Gabriel was utilized all over the field. On this play, he runs a drag route and Matt Ryan makes a great adjustment on the throw.
Drag routes aren’t going to be a problem for Ridley, either. He can run this route as an ‘X’ receiver or from the slot position. On the play above, he’s lined up in the slot, which looks similar to the play before with Taylor Gabriel. Ridley can’t get edge for the first down, but at the next level, it won’t surprise me to see him run underneath coverages that are assigned to Jones and Sanu.
Plenty of teams in the NFL have designed screens for every receiver. As you can see, it’s no different for Gabriel and the Falcons.
Much like with Gabriel, there were designed screens for Ridley. Despite not being the most explosive receiver at the Scouting Combine, he can do plenty after the catch.
Expectations for Calvin Ridley
Earlier, I mentioned how the Falcons were dreadful in the red-zone last year. Statistically, they’re not the worst, but with the playmakers they have, they should have been better. Adding Ridley should free up space for Jones, Sanu, and even Austin Hooper. Ridley should get his fair share of red-zone targets, too.
Whether it was Lane Kiffin or Brian Daboll, both offensive coordinators liked having Ridley line up all over, especially in the red-zone. On the play above, he’s lined up in the slot and does a great job working to the corner of the end zone while the quarterback escapes pressure. This will benefit Matt Ryan on Sundays, especially if he can get Ridley the football.
Much like on the previous play, Ridley runs from the slot and works towards the middle of the end zone. The quarterback makes a great throw off his back foot, but he’s putting nothing but trust on Ridley to come down with the catch. This should happen a few times for the Falcons with him running from the slot.
The play above is just to show off how good Ridley is running his double moves. It’s a simple slant-and-go (sluggo) route. The quarterback misses the throw and the cornerback stumbles, but it’s common for Ridley to run this route, and when he does, it’s a beautiful thing.
Ridley's double moves were ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/QKjzYn0KOv
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) May 19, 2018
When the 2018 season begins, I fully expect to see Calvin Ridley on the field for the Atlanta Falcons. That might sound obvious for a first round pick, but that’s not always the case, especially for wide receivers. Take Laquon Treadwell, for example. He went 23rd overall in the 2016 NFL Draft but only had one reception during his rookie season. He struggled to find the field and clearly lacked production.
In Atlanta, it’ll be different for Calvin Ridley. He’s going to fit alongside Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu nicely. Whether he plays in the slot or as an ‘X’ or ‘Z’ receiver, it doesn’t matter. The most common routes you’ll see from him are hitches, curls and slants, but don’t be surprised when he tests a defense vertically.
By having Matt Ryan as his quarterback, there will be plenty of opportunities to grow. In his 10 seasons in the NFL, Ryan has averaged 559.3 passing attempts per season. Julio Jones has averaged 132 targets over his seven year career in the NFL. The Falcons have a consistent ground game with Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, and by adding another weapon for Matt Ryan, it should make this offense lethal again. Ridley will reunite with a former Alabama offensive assistant (2016) in Steve Sarkisian, who is the offensive coordinator for the Falcons. That should help with verbiage of the offense and keep Ridley comfortable at the next level.
With 11 offensive skilled players (QB, RB, WR, TE) taken in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ridley as a rookie of the year candidate. Despite being a rookie, Ridley is already a refined route runner and was the most pro-ready receiver in this class for a reason. It’s a coincidence that Ridley will be wearing the same number as Taylor Gabriel for the Falcons (18), but Ridley will have a more defined role and a much bigger impact.