The Falcons yesterday did two unsurprising things, exercising their fifth year option on Calvin Ridley and declining to do so for Hayden Hurst. The option for Ridley is virtually guaranteed to be as a precursor to a long-term deal, but with Hurst the picture is a bit more complicated.
The reasons why these two moves were expected should be evident, but here’s a refresher if it’s not. Calvin Ridley is coming off a 90 catch, 1,374 yard, 9 touchdown campaign that was among the best in the league last year and also among the best in franchise history. The 26-year-old receiver is in his prime and is a hugely valuable piece of what we all hope is an efficient and quality passing game, and the Falcons aren’t going to take any chances of losing that. I fully expect them to attack a new contract so they aren’t paying out a guaranteed $11.1 million next year, however.
Hurst, meanwhile, caught 56 passes for 571 yards and 6 touchdowns, finishing either at #10 or just outside the top 10 at this position across the NFL in those marks. He was a useful piece for the passing game last year, but drafting Kyle Pitts meant the Falcons weren’t about to hand him $5.4 million guaranteed for next year to be, in all likelihood, no better than the fourth option in this passing game.
Let’s take a look at what the moves may mean for both players in the future.
Calvin Ridley: Atlanta’s next top receiver
Kyle Pitts is going to be Arthur Smith’s pride and joy, as we all know, and a player this team feels comfortable lining up all over the field as a mismatch machine. While he’ll play a lot of different roles in Atlanta, Ridley will have a more straightforward one relatively soon: The team’s top receiver.
That’s not a slight to Julio Jones, who has been one of the league’s most dominant players for the past decade, so much as it is an acknowledgement that his future in Atlanta is not settled. The Falcons have listened to calls for him and have conspicuously avoided re-structuring his conract to this point, meaning there would seem to be a fairly decent chance that they’ll move him post-2021. He’s coming off a season where he looked as great as ever but only played in 9 games due to injury, while Ridley broke out and enjoyed his finest season as a pro, including his own very dominant stretch while #11 was sidelined.
Ridley is simply a wizard of a route runner who is plenty fast enough to make defenses pay for miscues and plenty savvy enough to cause those miscues in the first place. With Smith’s hopefully strong gameplanning and Pitts creating problems everywhere, Ridley can dominate both with and without Julio. With the team signaling Julio may not be in their long-term plans, Ridley more or less has to be, and the fifth year option just buys them some time and breathing room to get a long-term deal done.
Hayden Hurst: Outlook hazy
Hurst is the victim of a shifting landscape, one he has virtually no control over. Solid throughout 2020 and terrific at times, Hurst is a sure-handed and speedy tight end who is a very capable weapon. His blocking is merely so-so most of the time, but when he’s your top receiving threat at the position, that’s something you can look past pretty easily.
The front office that traded a second round pick for him is gone, though, and the Falcons just drafted Pitts. They also traded a conditional 7th rounder for Lee Smith, a nasty blocker who will find his way on the field quite a bit on run downs, and have plenty of mouths to feed between Ridley, Julio Jones, Russell Gage, and even Mike Davis, who may find himself utilized more in the passing game than Derrick Henry was for Arthur Smith in Tennessee. Had the Falcons succeeded last year and Thomas Dimitroff had stuck around, there’s a pretty solid chance Hurst would’ve gotten his option picked up in lieu of a longer-term deal.
This is not to say that Hurst is doomed in Atlanta, or that the team will be looking to move on from him right now. Edit: OvertheCap has a cutt saving the Falcons just $635,000, while Spotrac says they’d save $1.98 million outright with no dead money by cutting him. Either way, if the team decides they love what Pitts, Lee Smith, Jaeden Graham and Ryan Becker bring to the table, maybe that’s a possibility, but it would not lead to significant savings, especially if OverthCap is correct. They could also look to move him to a team with a hole at tight end for what would likely be a Day 3 selection.
At the same time, Arthur Smith loves two tight end sets and Hurst is easily the most established pass catcher in this group, and someone who should benefit greatly from his new coach and getting to share the field with Pitts. If Atlanta’s serious about contending this year, Hurst is still likely to be a player they count on.
If he does have a good year in Atlanta, the Falcons will be able to mull keeping him in 2022 and beyond with a deal that doesn’t hook them into $5.4 million in what promises to be another tricky year of salary cap navigation, which I don’t think is outside of the realm of possibility, particularly if they intend to part ways with Julio Jones before next season. For the moment, though, Hurst is left to see how significant his role will be and whether his production in 2021 will translate to a long-term return to Atlanta or a trip to the open market.