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Calvin Ridley Is the NFL’s Newest Superstar Wide Receiver

The former first-round pick is on pace to shatter all of his previous career highs. In the Falcons’ dark times, Ridley’s star has shined bright.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Calvin Ridley’s star is rising so rapidly in Atlanta, he just might make you forget that times are grim for the Falcons right now. The 0-3 Falcons enter Monday night’s clash against the Packers with little to celebrate, reeling from their second consecutive loss in which they watched a 16-point lead evaporate in the fourth quarter. However, in the midst of Atlanta’s losing streak, Ridley has emerged as much more than just a sidekick to perennial Pro Bowl wideout Julio Jones. Ridley is a no. 1 receiver in his own right.

Through three games, Ridley has 21 catches for 349 yards (second most in the league) and four touchdowns (tied for first). He’s the only player to have registered at least 100 receiving yards in each game this season. Needless to say, he’s on pace to shatter all of his previous career highs. Two years ago, the no. 26 pick in the draft enjoyed a breakout rookie campaign, recording 64 catches for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns across 16 games (five starts). Last year, Ridley posted similar numbers—63 receptions, 866 yards, seven TDs through 13 appearances (10 starts)—but missed the final three games with an abdominal injury. If there was any concern surrounding whether or not he’d be able to continue building off two impressive seasons following the ailment, he’s soundly put them to rest. In fact, if he keeps up this pace, he’ll total 1,861 receiving yards—more than his previous two seasons combined.

After a Week 2 outing in which he posted seven catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns against the Cowboys, Ridley credited his hot start to a “Super Bowl” mindset.

“Whatever I can do for the win,” Ridley said. “I just wanna win games and put the team into position to go to the Super Bowl and playoffs. If that’s me catching two, three touchdowns a game, that’s what I’ll do.”

Football Outsiders projects the Falcons have a 15.2 percent chance of reaching the playoffs after their 0-3 start. But despite lackluster team results, Ridley has done his part, serving as a reliable go-to target for quarterback Matt Ryan. That’s been particularly true in the red zone. Tight end Austin Hooper, who scored seven red zone TDs (tied for fourth most in the NFL) last season, left the team in free agency this offseason. While Hayden Hurst was acquired as Hooper’s direct replacement, Ryan has still favored Ridley near the goal line. The wideout is tied for fourth in red zone targets (seven) and ranks first in red zone TDs among wide receivers (three).

But beyond the red zone, Ridley’s full impact has been felt all over the field for Atlanta. The former Alabama speedster has been key to the Falcons’ vertical passing game. He leads the league in completed air yards (305) and intended air yards (559). Ryan clearly trusts Ridley downfield, and the wideout ranks first in receptions of 15 yards or more (eight). On Atlanta’s first play against the Bears last week, Ryan and Ridley connected on an impressive 63-yard completion.

Ridley’s overall average depth of target is 16.9 yards, tied for fifth highest among receivers (min. 10 targets) this year. He’s yet to record a single reception behind the line of scrimmage. Atlanta has really taken advantage of the respect defensive backs give Ridley for his speed and great route-running ability by using him to execute long-developing patterns on play-action passes. He’s been highly successful at achieving chunk yardage on play-action throws, boasting five receptions for 150 yards and one TD on such plays. His ADOT on nine play-action targets is 22.4 yards.

One play last week demonstrated how effective these types of plays can be. Early in the third quarter, Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, defending a deep zone, gave Ridley plenty of cushion at the line of scrimmage to account for Ridley’s speed. Ridley ran a corner route, angling toward the middle of the field before breaking to the sideline just as Fuller began taking his first steps inside and turning his body to potentially defend a vertical route. As Ridley altered his pattern, Ryan timed his throw perfectly, finding Ridley near the boundary before Fuller had a chance to close down.

There are more examples of Atlanta using Ridley’s route-running abilities on play-action. During Week 2 against Dallas, Ridley was lined up as the lone receiver in a three tight-end formation. Chidobe Awuzie gave up roughly 7 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap. Ridley began to run an in-breaking route, so Awuzie started to track inside with him. But 5 yards after cutting inside, Ridley stopped on a dime and angled his route back toward the sideline. Awuzie is a split second late in redirecting his coverage, and Ridley got open enough for Ryan to needle in a pass. Ridley tightroped the sideline and reached the ball over the pylon for an impressive score.

Ridley later got the better of Dallas rookie Trevon Diggs. On another play-action play, Ridley got 20 yards downfield before breaking his route toward the sideline. He spent most of the play getting a full head of steam on what initially looked like a vertical route before turning Diggs around.

Without the defense getting pressure on Ryan, defensive backs can be left alone to cover Ridley for long stretches of time. Even if the Falcons aren’t utilizing play-action, Ridley’s route-running is so sharp that he’s able to fool defenders with subtle movement and create a window for Ryan to throw to. Week 1 against the Seahawks, Atlanta’s offensive line gave Ryan plenty of time in the pocket to wait for Ridley to shake his man before Ryan threaded a completion to him near the sideline.

And while he’s been a consistent threat to opposing defenses in the vertical passing game, Ridley is also capable of reeling off big yards after the catch in the quick game. Ridley’s rapport with Ryan has grown so much that the quarterback routinely throws to him with perfect timing. And against the Cowboys, Ryan displayed enough trust and accuracy to get the ball to Ridley even with Diggs draped on top of him in coverage.

While playing alongside Jones and a budding Russell Gage Jr. certainly helps, Ridley isn’t simply benefiting from their presence. Ridley currently ranks ninth in target share (27 percent) and tied for third in total targets (35) this season. When Jones was out last week against the Bears—who boast Pro Football Focus’s fifth-highest graded pass-coverage unit (67.2)—he recorded five receptions for 110 yards on 13 targets. Ridley is becoming a superstar, a development that not many likely expected to occur while the 25-year-old was still playing in the shadow of Jones. Former Steeler and ESPN analyst Ryan Clark recently joked that Ridley’s story would be a nightmarish tale for defensive backs, which garnered approval from former Falcons receiver Harry Douglas.

Ridley’s two outstanding debut seasons in the league were encouraging, but three games into his third, it’s clear that he’s taken the next step toward becoming one of the best receivers in the NFL. And at a time when Atlanta is slim on victories, Ridley’s dominance and trajectory to superstardom are welcome.