Bair: Here's why I think Calvin Ridley will move permanently into NFL's elite receiver class

The Falcons traded a top-flight receiver in Julio Jones, but they still have one in Calvin Ridley

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Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley #18 in action during the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 20, 2020.

Julio Jones was a coverage magnet. The top-flight receiver drew attention from safeties and linebackers and opposing defensive coordinators alike over his time as a Falcon, with extra bodies gravitating toward him like moths to a flame.

While he was good enough to make plays despite heavy traffic and defenders all around, Jones' mere presence in the pattern had an ancillary effect. He made life easier on those around him. Other receivers often worked in favorable situations, one-on-one against a cornerback with inconsistent safety help on certain routes.

That's why praising Calvin Ridley might've come with a caveat. Enthusiasm could be tempered by (flawed) logic that sounded something like this: Calvin has unreal talent and has been really productive…for a No. 2 receiver. Man, Ridley had an excellent game that helped the Falcons win… because the other team sold out to stop Julio.

Such excuses would diminish Ridley's exploits, leaving true superstar potential somewhat unnoticed.

That won't be the case anymore. Ridley enters the 2021 season as the Falcons' unquestioned No. 1 receiver after Jones was traded to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday for a compensation package that included a 2022 second-round NFL Draft pick.

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Quarterback Matt Ryan has other quality options available in Russell Gage, No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst and others, but Ridley will be his primary target.

Those same detractors who would add a "but" to Ridley's previous accomplishments will surely wonder (out loud and on social media, no doubt) how he'll fare without Jones on the other side attracting attention.

Ridley answered those questions last season. He proved more than capable of being a top receiver and handling all that comes with the title. 

Ridley was awesome in 2020, with 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games after a red-hot start. That earned him second-team All-Pro status. His output stayed high even in the seven contests Jones missed with a nagging hamstring injury.

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.

Pretty dang impressive and proof that Ridley should be considered among the NFL's elite receivers. Still unconvinced? How about this: Ridley had eight 100-plus-yard receiving games last year. That's more than 22 teams got from their entire receiver corps.

If he stays healthy, expect crazy numbers easily topping 2020's breakout campaign. Many have come to believe Ridley's really, really good. A huge season should take things a step farther and prove he can be great.

I'll save you the wait with this not-so-bold prediction: Ridley is a perennial Pro Bowler in the making. His first should come in 2021, even when the whole world knows he'll be targeted a ton.

Being the top dog will also increase his leadership responsibilities, but Ridley should also be ready for that.   

"Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes," head coach Arthur Smith said last month. "I don't sit here and try to get these guys to be cookie-cutter and say, 'Hey, you have to act a certain way.' We like for these guys to be themselves. Guys are going to lead in their own ways. Usually the more productive guys, guys gravitate towards. We're excited about Calvin and the potential that he brings to our football team this season."

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