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Can Calvin Ridley get back on track against Miami?

What will it take for the Falcons to get their top wideout playing like one for the rest of 2021?

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NFL: Atlanta Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After watching Atlanta Falcons rookie tight end Kyle Pitts have a breakout 119-yard performance in the team’s London win over the New York Jets, the time is ripe for wideout Calvin Ridley to have a similarly big game when the team travels to Miami to take on the Dolphins this Sunday.

But doing so against this Dolphins secondary is a significant challenge, assuming the unit is fully healthy. Starting cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Byron Jones both sat out Miami’s own trip to London last week in a disappointing loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Their absence forced the Dolphins, a team that deploys man coverage as much as any defense in the league, to dial things back and utilize more zone coverage.

Through their first five games this year, according to Pro Football Focus, Howard and Jones were deployed in man coverage on over 50 percent of their coverage snaps. This past week against Jacksonville, their replacements in Noah Igbinoghene and Justin Coleman were in man on just 27 percent of snaps.

Both Howard and Jones were limited in Wednesday’s practice. Since Jones was questionable last week, one would assume his chances of playing this Sunday are higher than Howard, who was ruled out last Friday.

Howard and Jones represent one of the better coverage duos in the NFL, leading to Miami’s confidence that they can match up man-to-man with anybody. Thus, the challenge ahead for both Ridley and Pitts is nothing to scoff at, but overcoming man coverage is one of the things that Ridley has historically done exceptionally well given his skill as a route-runner.

According to Underdog Fantasy, Ridley was one of the top producers in the NFL last year in terms of yardage against man coverage. Ridley’s route-running prowess was on full display this summer in the joint practices against this Dolphins team, ones that saw him frequently line up against both Howard and Jones.

Yet despite a potentially favorable matchup this weekend, whether the team can fully unlock Ridley’s potential might depend on transforming how he’s utilized within head coach Arthur Smith’s offense.

Ridley a square peg in the Arthur Smith offense?

There seemingly are too many instances where Ridley is being asked to run a route tree comparable to that of Smith’s top target in Tennessee, A.J. Brown. Accordingly, there are not enough times where Ridley ran the staples that he excelled at in his breakout 2020 season.

No receiver was more productive running dig routes than Brown, in 2019 according to Football Outsiders, and that route remained one of the staples that Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill excelled again at throwing in 2020 under Smith’s watch.

But that was not a route that Ryan particularly flourished throwing this past season. Using Football Outsider’s 2019 and 2020 data, one can connect the dots and assume that Julio Jones’ absence for much of the latter season likely led to Ryan’s limited output.

The dig is perfect for the bigger-bodied Jones, but not so much for Ridley. Instead, among Ryan’s best routes in 2020 were the corner and out routes. It’s fair to think that was due mostly to Ridley’s excellent running those routes.

We can point out prime examples from the team’s Week 15 and 16 matchups a year ago where Ryan put some dimes on Ridley on corner routes. Those were among some of the best throws Ryan made all year long.

The reality is that Ridley is not a big, physical receiver in the same mold as Brown, Jones, or even Pitts. He wins with precision and timing, and routes like the corner and out are perfect ways for him to show off those skills. If the Falcons hope to unlock Ridley’s full potential moving forward, mixing in more of those staples to his route tree would be an ideal way to do so.

Patience needed to evaluate Ridley’s No. 1 status

And while Smith deserves some criticism for not fully molding his offense around Ridley’s skill set, one cannot be too harsh about his play-calling. After all, Smith’s predecessor in Dirk Koetter took some time during 2019 before he was able to adapt his offense to Ridley’s abilities.

On the Locked On Falcons Podcast, I reviewed film from the Falcons’ loss to Smith and the Titans in Week 4 of that season to break down how Koetter could improve upon integrating Ridley into the Falcons offense.

The issue then surrounded why Ridley had gone relatively quiet in two games following a 105-yard performance against the Philadelphia Eagles a few weeks earlier. After that podcast episode aired, Ridley would immediately have an impressive 88-yard performance against the Houston Texans and then go on to finish the year in strong fashion, with each of his last four games producing 75 or more receiving yards before being he was sidelined with an abdominal injury.

Eventually, Ridley would continue building off the strong finish with 100 or more receiving yards in eight of the Falcons games last year. So despite a relatively slow start under Koetter, the two were eventually able to get on the same page to make beautiful music together.

The same can also happen with Smith and Ridley this season. But the fact that we’ve gone from the symphony a year ago to Ridley’s impact in the offense turning into a bit more discord this year has raised concerns about the receiver’s future in Atlanta.

Many are questioning if Ridley is a “true No. 1” receiver in the same vein as Jones. It’s certainly a fair conversation to have given that despite concerns about Smith’s utilization of Ridley, the Falcons receiver hasn’t necessarily held up his end of the bargain.

Ridley has had too many untimely drops and made some questionable decisions after the catch that has caused many to question his toughness.

Things weren’t aided by the mysterious “personal matter” that prevented him from traveling with the team to London. While I don’t think it’s fair to make any assumptions about that situation, having interacted with fans in online spaces for over two decades, I’m also aware others have far fewer qualms about openly speculating and trying to fill in the blanks about Ridley’s current mental or emotional state.

Instead, my attention is less about what’s going on in Ridley’s head or heart but rather focused on his wallet. His looming contract status makes this 2021 season an important one for him. The Falcons extended his fifth-year option this past spring, meaning he will be under contract through the 2022 season and count roughly $11.1 million against the team’s salary cap next year.

Ridley’s contract status looms large

That’s a hefty figure that the team could potentially try and lower by giving him a long-term contract extension, but the price of paying a top-end wide receiver is not cheap. This past offseason, Kenny Golladay signed a deal with the New York Giants worth $18 million per year. A year before that, Amari Cooper re-upped with the Dallas Cowboys on a contract that pays him $20 million annually. Even given his relatively slow start this season, Ridley’s overall body of work indicates his market should be amongst that tier of receivers.

Of course, the Falcons are not obligated to extend Ridley next offseason and could easily let the 2022 season play out before deciding to make a long-term financial commitment to him. He would then become a free agent in 2023, and the team would have the option of placing the franchise tag on him to give them more time to evaluate and/or negotiate a long-term deal.

Yet 2023 is also the same offseason that Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is set to become a free agent and teams are only allowed to use the tag once per offseason. So should both players find themselves approaching free agency at that point, the Falcons may be forced to keep one and let the other walk. If the goal is to keep both players long-term, then it behooves the team to try and extend one of them this upcoming offseason in 2022 in order to retain that tag flexibility in 2023.

Whether it’s Ridley or Jarrett being the one poised to earn the big bucks next spring or summer is certainly a debate that will likely rage in the comments below, but both players will need to perform better as the rest of the 2021 season unfolds.

For Ridley, the time is now. It not only rests on Ridley getting back to doing the little things to make him more reliable and consistent, but also on Smith to better mold his offense around Ridley’s skills.

Hopefully, that will start in Miami on Sunday.

What are your thoughts on Ridley’s play thus far this year? Do you think his struggles are related to play-calling or something else? Will we see a repeat of this summer’s highlights against the Dolphins on Sunday?