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This is Calvin Ridley’s show now

The fourth year receiver is heading for a big payday, and is ready for the opportunity.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have been a snakebitten team throughout their entire history, but one thing has consistently gone well for them over the past three decades: Having one of the league’s better receivers in the fold, if not two at once.

Since adding Andre Rison back in 1990, the Falcons had only one dry spell where they didn’t have a player like Rison, Terance Mathis, Roddy White, Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley to throw to, and that was from 2002 to 2006, which coincided with Mathis leaving and Roddy scuffling for the first two years of his career. Since then, White, Jones and Ridley have combined for nearly 26,000 yards, nearly 150 touchdowns, and consistent greatness.

The Falcons were fortunate enough to have Roddy around for the first five years of Julio’s career, and Julio in turn for the first three years of Ridley’s career. Now it’s time for Ridley to carry the torch as the team’s lead option, something he auditioned for a year ago. The offense flagged without Julio—despite the change in the coaching staff and the addition of Kyle Pitts, that’s still something I’m quite concerned about—but Ridley was a huge bright spot. In fact, he erased any small doubts I harbored about his ability to be the top receiver in this offense, and that was with an extremely shaky ground game and Dirk Koetter at the helm. I don’t think we’ve seen his best work. Remember, he finished among league leaders in yardage despite missing a game and putting up one very strange, likely-to-be-one-time-only goose egg against the Packers last year.

As Scott Bair noted in his paean to Ridley yesterday, Ridley erased any doubts that he can be Ryan’s go-to guy.

As a matter of fact, his production went up. He averaged 109 receiving yards in the seven games when Jones was inactive, including five where he exceeded triple digits. All told, he had 50 catches for 763 yards and three touchdowns in that span.

That’s good, because his best work is exactly what Atlanta’s going to need. Having Julio and Ridley as your top two receivers makes life easier for any quarterback, any play caller, and any other receiving options lucky enough to share the field with them. Subtracting Julio does not mean things fall apart entirely—Ryan kept things humming, if more quietly, with Ridley and Russell Gage without Julio last year, and he and Harry Douglas once put together an absurd season when Douglas was essentially the last man standing at receiver—but it puts a lot of pressure on Ridley to be among the league’s elite receivers immediately.

Part of what makes Ridley exactly that and so difficult to defend is his wizardry as a route runner. No one in the NFL had more yards before the catch than #18 in 2020, a product of Ridley’s ability to simply get open at will. He has not been the most productive receiver in the NFL after the catch, but that’s plenty workable when you can essentially get yourself open at will, especially against single coverage. See below for some fun examples of Ridley simply leaving defenders in the dust.

The hope is that Pitts, being a hyper-athletic giant who should be impossible to ignore, will command enough attention from defenses immediately to give Ridley plenty of the one-on-one battles he tends to win. Teams giving Ridley extra attention are still at the mercy of his speed and route running ability, however, and the Falcons still will have enough weapons to hopefully punish teams that make Ridley the focus of their gameplan.

The Falcons offense is likely to be better than it was a year ago even without Julio Jones, I firmly believe, even if the opportunity for them to be anywhere close to truly elite in 2021 likely evaporated with that trade. However special Kyle Pitts may be down the line and however spectacularly Matt Ryan rebounds this year, this passing game is going to rely heavily on Calvin Ridley being a great receiver. It’s a good thing he already is.