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Breakout season for Calvin Ridley? Why history is on his side

A look at what history tells us about the likelihood a receiver makes the leap in his third NFL season

Calvin Ridley is on a mission.

After falling short of 1,000 receiving yards in his second NFL season due to an abdominal injury that forced him to miss the final three games, Ridley is out to prove he’s among the league’s elite receivers in 2020. Many are predicting a breakout season from Ridley this fall; he's now the clear No. 2 option for Matt Ryan and has improved with each year in the NFL. But what exactly constitutes a breakout season?

An argument could be made that Ridley has already broken out. He's considered one of the top young receivers in the league and was on pace to break that important 1,000-yard threshold in 2019.

"There's been some messaging about him having this as a breakout year, and I hope it is, I hope he's improved from what he's been the last two years, but he's been really good the last two years and extremely productive for us," Ryan said of Ridley. "I'm fired up that he's hungry and ready to go, and I think he's going to do a great job for us."

The fact that he didn't reach 1,000 yards, however, is likely why the notion of a breakout season is still on the table. Ridley wants to leave no doubt that he's "easily" a 1,000-yard receiver, so that's a good place to start.

History indicates that a receiver can take a big step forward in his third season. Since 2000, 45 wide receivers gained at least 1,000 yards in their third NFL seasons. Of those 45 players, 23 reached the 1,000-yard milestone for the first time in their careers, suggesting it's during his third season that a player really begins to put it all together.

Here is a complete list of the 23 receivers who gained 1,000 yards for the first time in their third seasons:

Table inside Article
Player Year Catches Yards Touchdowns
Demaryius Thomas 2012 94 1,434 10
Dez Bryant 2012 92 1,382 12
Javon Walker 2004 89 1,382 12
Chris Godwin 2019 86 1,333 9
Sidney Rice 2009 83 1,312 8
Roy Williams 2006 82 1,310 7
Lee Evans 2006 82 1,292 8
Greg Jennings 2008 80 1,292 9
Braylon Edwards 2007 80 1,289 16
Laveranues Coles 2002 89 1,264 5
Steve Smith (NYG) 2009 107 1,220 7
Roddy White 2007 83 1,202 6
Cooper Kupp 2019 94 1,161 10
Torrey Smith 2013 65 1,128 4
Steve Smith (CAR) 2003 88 1,110 7
Santana Moss 2003 74 1,105 10
Kevin Johnson 2001 84 1,097 9
Ashley Lelie 2004 54 1,084 7
Stevie Johnson 2010 82 1,073 10
Marty Booker 2001 100 1,071 8
Eric Decker 2012 85 1,064 13
Tyler Boyd 2018 76 1,028 7
Mike Williams 2019 49 1,001 2

That list includes a wide array of receiver types and varying degrees of talent. Some players, like Steve Smith, Roddy White and Greg Jennings, went on to become receivers who helped defined the era in which they played. Others on this list such as Javon Walker and Sidney Rice reached their peaks in Year 3 only to never again have a similarly successful season.

There are other factors that point to a receiver's third season being an important one. Even among those players who gained 1,000 yards in their first two seasons, that third year often resulted in a significant jump forward.

DeAndre Hopkins gained 1,521 yards in his third year, an increase of more than 300 yards from his output in Year 2. Likewise, players such at Tyreek Hill, A.J. Green and T.Y. Hilton hit new heights in their third season after previously putting together big-time campaigns.

What makes Ridley's situation unique is that he's not Atlanta's primary receiver. The presence of Julio Jones can be viewed as both a positive and a negative for Ridley's quest to reach 1,000 yards. Defenses will first and foremost game plan to contain Jones, which should allow Ridley to have more advantageous situations. However, Jones will see a lot of passes thrown his way, which will eat into the number of targets Ridley sees.

On that point, history also provides reason to believe that an offense like the Falcons can easily support two 1,000-yard receivers. Of the 45 players who reached 1,000 yards in their third season the past two decades, 18 did so with another 1,000-yard receiver on the team. 

Ridley recently stated he wasn't concerned about there not being enough opportunities for both himself and Jones, accurately noting that he was on pace to reach 1,000 yards last year, and that was with Mohamed Sanu in the picture for half of the year. Given Ryan's willingness to spread the ball around and the talent of Atlanta's top two receivers, it seems unlikely that there will be a lack of opportunities.

Ridley has made his intentions for this season clear: He wants to be elite. Based on his play with the Falcons so far, and if recent history is any indication, this may very well be the year he makes the jump into that category.

We are counting down the top 10 Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.

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