Calvin Ridley is the best receiver I’ve graded thus far for the 2018 ITP Draft Guide. The tape is filled with displays of great quickness, suddenness and route running ability. All of which are traits that translate well to the NFL game for a wide receiver. Despite sounding like the consensus WR1, Ridley faces criticism for aspects that don’t revolve around his traits.
For one, Ridley is already 23 years old and will turn 24 near the end of the 2018 NFL season. I’m not sure what to make of the age flag from a valuation standpoint. I’m sure it can be beneficial for a player to be younger in order for him to be serviceable for a longer period of time. Perhaps the people who believe Ridley will reach his peak and decline after the 4-5 seasons he’s on his rookie deal are right. Projection is more of an art than a science.
But I think that’s overthinking the “valuation” too much when the “evaluation” of a player of Ridley’s caliber equates to a plug and play player in year one. I can assume that this isn’t an issue for NFL coaches and general managers who are in an environment where they have to perform now. If a decision maker believes in Ridley and his ability on the field he’s going to be a high selection regardless of age.
That concern is either confirmed or dispelled depending on your personal preference. To dispel the other concern regarding Ridley, a lack of production, you’ll need context.
Let’s turn to the raw statistics and how this production flag came about.
You’ll notice that Ridley started his college career off amassing over 1,000 yards and catching 89 passes as a freshman. During his sophomore season, Ridley’s receptions and yards totals declined, but his scoring totals remained the same. If you include rushing touchdowns they actually increased from 7 touchdowns to 8. Then, last season Ridley’s receptions took a dive once again, but his yards inflated, nearly reaching that targeted 1,000 yard mark.
Essentially, Ridley faced some regression in his receptions and some inconsistency in his annual yardage totals. When comparing the 2015 Alabama Crimson Tide to the 2016 and 2017 rosters, the major difference impacting Ridley is the turnover at the quarterback position. The Tide went from Senior QB Jake Coker in 2015, winning a National Championship, to Freshman QB Jalen Hurts in 2016.
Coker and Hurts are two different QBs for the most part. The former relied on keeping his team on schedule and the latter relies on his athletic ability to make plays outside the pocket. Based off completion percentage, which doesn’t always accurately gauge accuracy due to not accounting for the type of throw, Coker was better at completing passes than Hurts. The senior completed 66.9% of his passes in 2015 compared to Hurts’ 61.9% the last two seasons. Hurts’ ball placement issues do not only show up in the stat sheet – they are also all over Ridley’s tape.
Hurts’ poor ball placement played a key role in Ridley’s odd statistical decline for a talented draft prospect from his freshman to junior season.
During the first round of the College Football Playoff, Hurts missed an opportunity to hit a wide open Ridley on a flea flicker.
The play was executed perfectly, aside from the throw. The RB Damien Harris (#34) takes the handoff to freeze the defense before pitching it back to Hurts. Simultaneously, Ridley shows off his football intelligence by cleverly jogging into his route to sell the run before accelerating deep down field. Ridley’s excellent speed allows him to easily get behind all levels of the defense. Near the Clemson 31 yard line Ridley has roughly a 4 yard cushion on the nearest defensive back.
Yet, that separation is erased by Hurts’ poorly placed throw. The throw needs to get more power behind it and be more on a “rope” to allow Ridley to catch the pass in stride for a touchdown. Instead, Hurts lofts it up and forces Ridley to slow down while tracking the pass in the air, creating a 50/50 jump ball situation for his receiver.
Ridley goes up for the pass and attempts to secure it with two hands, but the Clemson DB gets his hand involved at the catch point to break the play up. Ridley could have positioned himself better to shield the DB away more by not opening up his hips that early to adjust back to the ball. The Alabama junior WR’s game is more focused around speed, quickness and suddenness than physically winning jump balls. And he accomplished separation initially with his style of play.
The following game against Georgia for the National Championship Hurts again misses an opportunity to connect with Ridley for an easy touchdown. Unlike the play broken down above, Hurts just misses the mark completely with this throw. Here’s the play with post play reactions by Ridley, Hurts and Nick Saban included.
Ridley does an excellent job of selling the inside route with a hard plant and head fake to manipulate the CB’s hips. There is a great amount of fluidity, suddenness and nuance to his route running that allows him to create separation early in the play. The Georgia CB has to make a 270 degree turn after biting on Ridley’s inside fake. Hurts should have a touchdown at this point, but to make the throw easier the Georgia CB loses his balance and falls to the turf, leaving Ridley going up against air.
It appears that Ridley stumbles a bit as well, perhaps in an effort to avoid the off balance Georgia CB, but he’s able to stay upright. This causes him to lose a few yards which may have helped the throw look catchable. Yet, I don’t believe that it would have made much of a difference on the final result – an incomplete pass.
Hurts didn’t have many passing attempts to regain the confidence of his coach and receivers after this one, as Saban would soon relieve Hurts for true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. This decision proved to be the right one, as Tagovailoa helped the Tide mount a comeback in OT against the Bulldogs.
In addition to accuracy issues, the Alabama QB also struggles with hesitation, processing speed and keeping his eyes downfield. There are numerous occasions where Ridley immediately creates separation from the defender across from him into his release and Hurts is hesitant to pull the trigger. Instead, Hurts breaks contain and scrambles while Ridley attempts to work open once more.
Earlier in the season against Tennessee, Hurts has Ridley open on a quick out near the goal line, but doesn’t get rid of the ball.
Ridley attacks the CB and maintains a straight line to hold the defender’s position. He then uses a dramatic head fake and hard plant to sell a quick inside route, which causes the defender to open up inside and get wide in his stance. This allows Ridley to have good separation to the front corner of the end zone running the quick out. Hurts, however, looks his receiver’s way and takes off.
Ridley then has to try and work open again by darting to the back of the end zone. He’s able to position himself in space as Hurts makes a throw rolling to his right off his back foot. The ball bounces off Ridley in the chest for an incompletion while he takes a low hit to his left leg. Ridley would miss a couple plays before returning to the game.
Hurts’ inability to process and make quick decisions with the ball caused Alabama to miss out on a touchdown and almost seriously injured their star receiver.
Ridley’s decline in production isn’t a flag as some seem to believe it to be. It’s a matter of inconsistent QB play that’s affected Ridley’s college numbers. Dispelling the two concerns about Ridley should make him the obvious WR1 heading into the NFL Draft.