Is Calvin Ridley ready to be the Falcons’ No.1 receiver after Julio Jones trade?

Is Calvin Ridley ready to be the Falcons’ No.1 receiver after Julio Jones trade?

The Falcons took a big step on Sunday when they agreed to commercial receiver Julio Jones at the Titans for a forfeit highlighted by a second-round draft pick. Jones had been Atlanta’s No.1 receiver for most of the past decade, but now the team has a new No.1 receiver on the depths chart.

It’s Calvin Ridley. Alabama’s 2018 first-round pick is expected to be the best weapon to receive for Matt Ryan and the Falcons in ’21. Rookie Kyle Pitts, the No.4 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, will be there to help in the close end while Russell Gage showed promise last year.

But, ultimately, much of the pressure to produce and help replace Jones will fall on Ridley.

IYER: Why the Titans are the winners of the Julio Jones trade

Is Ridley ready to be the Falcons’ top receiver? This is a question that deserves to be asked. He was Jones’ best lieutenant and a full-fledged productive receiver for three seasons in the NFL, but transitions to first place aren’t always easy.

Here’s Ridley’s outlook in his new role, and whether he can avoid the pitfalls of what has been, for some, a difficult transition.

(Getty Images)

How Calvin Ridley Cope With and Without Julio Jones

We actually have a pretty good sample of Ridley’s production without Jones. Over the past two seasons, Jones has missed eight games. So, in these competitions, Ridley has been the main threat to the Falcons.

Overall, Ridley was good as a top receiver. He averaged over 100 receiving yards per game while absorbing more targets than any other Ryan wide receiver.

As expected, Ridley’s target share increased when Jones was not on the pitch, as did his overall production. When you compare Ridley’s performance without Jones to the last eight games in which he and Jones have played at least 50% of the offensive snaps, it’s clear that Ridley can still thrive without Jones.

Calvin Ridley Statistics Targets Catches Reception course TD
With Julio Jones 9.1 6.4 97.6 1.1
Without Julio Jones 11.1 7.3 107 0.4

Of course, Ridley’s touchdown production drops considerably without Jones, but part of that is because teams were able to keep Ridley closer in the red zone when Jones was out of action. Adding two targets, a catch and 10 yards to his weekly stat line helps make up for that.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Ridley put a goose egg against the Packers last year in a game Jones left early. However, this is less about Ridley’s performance and more about a nice outing from Jaire Alexander, who was proud of his efforts against the young Falcons wide receiver in an Instagram story.

Maybe the teams will plan more against him, but Ridley looks set to serve as a quality No.1 receiver.

AFTER: AJ Brown on Titans acquires Julio Jones: “You’re all done”

Is JuJu Smith-Schuster an edifying tale for Ridley’s future?

Ridley’s situation is somewhat reminiscent of the Steelers’ departure from Antonio Brown and entrusting JuJu Smith-Schuster as their No.1 receiver.

After Brown called for a trade with the Steelers, they forced themselves by sending the former All-Pro to the Raiders to serve as a prime target for Derek Carr. In turn, Smith-Schuster would take on the role of No. 1 receiver for Pittsburgh. After a season that saw him register 111 catches, 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns, many thought he was set to be the Steelers’ top receiver.

However, Smith-Schuster did not live up to the bill. Admittedly, an injury to Ben Roethlisberger dramatically diminished his chances of contributing in 2019, but he’s only racked up 42 catches, 552 yards and three scores in 12 games for the Steelers.

Even taking into account the quarterback’s volatile situation, it was a disappointing year for Smith-Schuster, who didn’t look as explosive as in previous years. He’s been injured for part of the season, but early on he had his fair share of problems against the top cornerbacks who would previously have covered Brown.

Smith-Schuster was better in 2020 – he had 97 catches, 831 yards and nine touchdowns, a career-high – but it remains to be seen if he’s a true No.1 receiver (although he was, a once again injured by a bad quarterback situation and averaged a career low of 8.6 yards per catch). These questions are part of why he returned to Pittsbrugh on a one-year contract instead of landing a multi-year free agency contract.

AFTER: Why JuJu Smith-Schuster decided to re-sign with the Steelers rather than the Chiefs, Ravens

Could Ridley see a decline like Smith-Schuster with his All-Pro counterpart gone? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem so likely. Ridley has more experience without Jones than Smith-Schuster without Brown. In fact, Ridley has more experience overall, as he will become the No. 1 wide receiver early in his fourth career season. Smith-Schuster took on this challenge in his third year.

Plus, Ridley is a better athlete than the Steelers star, and Matt Ryan is better at this point in his career than Roethlisberger was in 19 for the Steelers. Both of these factors should give Ridley a better chance of avoiding collapsing in his first year as Target No.1.

As such, Ridley should be able to continue on an upward trajectory. Or at the very least, it isn’t expected to decline in 2021 – provided he and Ryan can stay healthy.

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