For the third consecutive year, Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff swerved everyone with their first round draft pick. It has become a yearly tradition for them to start off their draft with a curveball. What made this year different was that the team was bolstering their offense rather than continuing to build their rapidly improving defense.
With Da’Ron Payne being selected higher than anticipated, most draft analysts linked Taven Bryan with the Falcons. It seemed like an obvious fit, yet the front office is always thinking two steps ahead.
Not going the conventional route by addressing their biggest need has boded well over the past two seasons with Keanu Neal and Takkarist McKinley emerging as difference makers. That may prove to be the case again by drafting Calvin Ridley. Speed was desperately needed at wide receiver following Taylor Gabriel’s departure. To add someone with coverage-breaking explosiveness and acceleration is one thing. Combining those traits with exceptional route running makes Ridley a suitable first round pick.
It’s still surprising to see the Falcons select a wide receiver in the first round. Although they didn’t need to pick a defensive tackle right away due to the subpar class, most would envision an offensive guard being prioritized before a wide receiver. Taking a player like Will Hernandez would have been an ideal choice for their long-term outlook at a position with two older starters. Choosing Ridley shows their willingness in wanting their first round pick to contribute immediately. It also presents plenty of questions about the offense’s structure and future.
What Ridley brings to the offense
This is the perfect landing spot for Ridley. He joins an ultra-talented offense led by a top-tier quarterback. Despite having a wide variety of playmakers, the Falcons lacked a consistent field stretcher opposite Julio Jones. Not having a reliable explosive weapon left them limited at times. As exciting as Gabriel is, he struggles to create separation against man coverage. It became apparent that Gabriel is more of a role player than someone who can be effective playing 30-35 snaps a game. Not having an offensive coordinator that knew how to properly utilize him didn’t help matters either.
Ridley will be counted on to play significant snaps barring something unforeseen. His experience playing on the biggest stage in college can only benefit his transition. At 23 years old, the first-team All-SEC wide receiver is as savvy as it gets. Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson wrote an insightful piece on Ridley’s knack for getting open on a consistent basis. From creating separation with his slick footwork to using his craftiness against opposing cornerbacks, Ridley knows how to make life easier for a quarterback.
That bodes well for Ryan going into 2018. One of the main issues behind last season’s struggles was how little chunk plays were being created. The high-percentage, big-play throws from the magical 2016 season were missing during long stretches. Questionable play calling played a significant role in their regression, but the lack of separation created from their skill players can’t be ignored. According to Pro Football Focus, only 41 percent of Ryan’s pass attempts went to open players. Ridley should increase that number to take some pressure off Ryan. How he creates space gives the offense an exciting dimension. How well the rookie receiver is used falls on the shoulders of an embattled offensive coordinator.
Pressure intensifies for Steve Sarkisian
After last year’s staggering regression, there is nobody in the Falcons organization with more pressure on them than Sarkisian. He was repeatedly criticized for his predictable, unimaginative play calling. The inability to configure a cohesive game plan left them short handed in big games. That was evident in losses to New England, Minnesota, and Philadelphia. Could the lack of a big play threat opposite Jones hinder his thought process? Mohamed Sanu is a dependable weapon, but there are clear limitations to his game. A different type of playmaker at wide receiver could be what is needed for Sarkisian’s offense to flourish.
Drafting a wide receiver in the first round and signing a veteran guard in Brandon Fusco addressed two of the biggest offensive personnel concerns. Sarkisian should have three consistent wide receivers at his disposal, along with the most dynamic running back duo in the league. Opposing defenses shouldn’t be generating consistent interior pressure with two veteran guards and an elite center protecting Ryan.
That leaves Sarkisian as the last real question mark in the offense’s quest to regain their 2016 form. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit said a rich offense got richer when the Falcons selected Ridley. It’s hard to classify an offense as rich when they averaged 21.6 points per game last season. A rich offense usually averages between 25 to 29 points per game. Pittsburgh and New Orleans have averaged that total for the last four seasons. That is where Atlanta needs to be. It will fall on Sarkisian to help them get to that level. Reuniting with an old friend from Alabama may end up making or breaking him in what many consider to be one of the most lucrative coordinator jobs in the league.
Preparing for potential changes
By drafting Ridley, it immediately sparked conversation about the future of certain players. Will Sanu be viewed as too expensive (or expendable) by 2019? Does Justin Hardy decide to stick around or pursue a potential bigger role elsewhere? Are the Falcons slowly transitioning into a pass-oriented attack with Tevin Coleman likely leaving next March? These were some of the common questions brought up when Ridley was selected.
When considering the future of these players, it shows why the Falcons were intent on drafting a wide receiver. Successful teams know how to stay prepared. Drafting McKinley gave them flexibility going into last season. His impressive rookie season should alleviate the loss of Adrian Clayborn. A strong first season from Ridley would make the loss of Sanu or Hardy less troubling.
There is no telling what happens to either receiver. Both players are beloved in Atlanta for their excellent hands, grit, work ethic, and personality. The cruel business of the league can make keeping fan favorites extremely difficult. This was the first off-season where the Falcons lost several key players. Expect it to continue if they keep making the playoffs and challenging for the Super Bowl. That is why taking chances on players like Ridley is necessary, regardless if it’s your biggest positional need or not.