In his third NFL season, Calvin Ridley is off to a torrid start.
Through two games, Ridley's 239 receiving yards tie him with Buffalo's Stefon Diggs for the most in the NFL. When it comes to touchdown catches, though, Ridley's four get him the top spot all to himself. Entering the season, the Falcons receiver said he wanted to prove he's among the NFL's elite and notch his first 1,000-yard campaign. If he continues at his current pace, he'll have to set loftier goals.
In Atlanta's Week 2 shootout loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Ridley looked like the games biggest star. He consistently got open with pristine route running and Dallas's defense seemingly had no answer for him.
Just watching him on the field, it's clear that Ridley is gifted enough to join teammate Julio Jones among the league's very best receivers. There's more than just the eye test to rely on, however, the numbers back up that claim.
Ridley has played in 31 games since the Falcons drafted him with the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and he's caught 21 touchdown passes. Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, only five players have had more receiving touchdowns in their first 31 career games. His 21 touchdown receptions are one more than even Jones's total.
Aside from touchdown totals, Ridley has also proven to be exceptionally sure-handed for a young player. His 69.1 catch percentage ranks third since the merger through his first 31 games, behind only Michael Thomas (72.6 percent) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (69.2 percent). That extra time Ridley spends catching passes from the jugs machine is paying off.
"He can do whatever he wants to do, he's that type of talent," Jones said of Ridley prior to the season. "He has that type of energy, his work ethic, everything is there."
If, as Jones says, everything is there for Ridley, he's putting it all together thus far. There's no question Ridley has benefited from Jones's presence both on and off the field in much the same way Jones benefited from his time with Roddy White at the start of his career. Ultimately, though, it's Ridley who must succeed or fail, and the start of his NFL run matches that of his mentor's more than any other Falcon in history.
While statistically comparable – at least in this period of their respective careers – their playing styles certainly are not. Jones is physically unique and dominant, running his routes like a thoroughbred and muscling through defenders after the catch. Ridley, on the other hand, glides through defenses; he demonstrates a great feel for how to manipulate his speed to make defenders lose him.
If Julio Jones is the modern NFL version of LeBron James, Calvin Ridley is more akin to Dwyane Wade – if he can maintain this pace.
Although the two are great compliments to one another and could make a case by year's end for being the NFL's best receiving duo, Ridley proved on Sunday that he can take a game over, himself. With Jones slowed by a hamstring injury, it was Ridley's time to lead the way, and he came through.
Starting fast has been a common theme for Ridley in his time in the NFL. He became the first rookie in league history to have six touchdown catches in his team's first four games before ultimately setting the Falcons' franchise rookie touchdown receptions record with 10. In 2019, Ridley again had a touchdown catch in each of the first two games of Atlanta's season. This year, he's got two in each game.
Looking at only the first four weeks of a player's rookie season and second season, as well as the first two weeks of a player's third season, Ridley's 12 touchdown receptions are tied with Daryl Turner for the most in NFL history. There's also this little bit of information:
So, we know Ridley knows how to get off to a fast start. If he truly wants to ascend and earn a place among the game's greats, he must keep this level of play for much of a season. He already has as many 100-yard games this year as he did in his 13 games last year.
There are some notable stats that suggest with increased usage, Ridley can certainly maintain these stats now that he enters a season truly cemented as the No. 2 (No. 1B?) option.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, since he entered the league and among receivers with a minimum of 200 targets, Ridley's catch rate above expectation is plus-7.2, putting him sixth behind a "who's who" list of current receivers: Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Adam Thielen, Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. He is more than capable of making the toughest catches on the field.
Furthermore, he makes his quarterback's job easier. Since 2018, quarterbacks have a 122.2 rating when targeting Ridley, which edges out Thomas for the best mark in the NFL.
Ridley's role in this offense has evolved to the point where, if these numbers are indeed indicative of the caliber of player he is, he could truly take off. The Falcons haven't had a 1,000-yard duo at receiver since 2012, Jones's second year in the league. Atlanta may have accomplished that in Ridley's second year if he hadn't missed the final three games of the 2019 season.
If everyone stays healthy, and that's notable considering the staggering amount of serious injuries sustained throughout the NFL during the first two weeks, the Falcons look to have a great shot at doing that this year, which would be fitting for a franchise that appears to have found the third true go-to wide receiver option of Matt Ryan's run with the team.
Is this the year Ridley finally earns the title of "elite"? Well, he's off to a great start.