Calvin Ridley #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide warms up prior to the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against the Washington Huskies at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Is Calvin Ridley an upgrade over Taylor Gabriel? 

Let’s ponder that.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn got offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who had a poor first season in his position, a new weapon in the draft on Thursday with the wide receiver.

The Falcons bypassed their gaping hole at defensive tackle to get the offense some help.

The Falcons added Ridley to essentially replace Gabriel, who was allowed to leave in free agency. He received a lucrative deal with the Bears. 

The Falcons could have taken Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan, who went to the Jaguars three picks later, to fill the hole created by the decision to let defensive tackle Dontari Poe leave in free agency. He signed with the Panthers.  

Last season, there was a drastic drop in several key statistical areas under Sarkisian, who hadn’t been the NFL since 2005 and never was a full-time NFL play-caller. He spent part of the 2016 college football season at Alabama and worked with Ridley. 

“He was really cool,” Ridley said. “He was trying to get me that ball before he left, I knew that.”

In 2016, the Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game under coordinator Kyle Shanahan and dropped to 22.1 last season, which ranked 15th, nearly out of the top half of the league. 

The Falcons fell off drastically inside the opposition’s 20-yard line, the red zone. They were 64.5 percent in 2016, which ranked eighth in the NFL. Under Sarkisian, they were 49.1 and ranked 23rd.

Along with inconsistent play from tight end Austin Hooper, the Falcons missed the big-play ability of Gabriel. 

Foiled by his receivers and shaky pass protections, quarterback Matt Ryan’s play was below the MVP level he set in 2016. Ryan completed 342 of 529 passes (64.7 percent) for 4,095 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. 

Ryan threw 18 fewer touchdown passes and five more interceptions. His 20 touchdown passes were his lowest since he tossed 16 as a rookie in 2008.

Gabriel had a major dropoff and that contributed to the shaky offense.

In the 2016 march to Super Bowl LI, Gabriel had 11 plays of 19 yards or more and five long touchdowns (76, 64, 47, 35 and 25 yards.) He had only one touchdown last season, which went for 40 yards. He only had four plays for 19 yards or more. 

Gabriel’s job was to make teams pay for double-teaming Jones as he did in 2016. 

That role will now shift to Ridley, who’s catch production at Alabama declined in each of his three seasons.

He went from 89 catches to 72 and then only had 63 last season. He had 1,045 yards as a freshman, 769 yards as a sophomore and 963 last season. Some attribute his decline in catches to the inability of quarterback Jalen Hurts to get him the ball. Hurts was eventually pulled by coach Nick Saban in the national championship game against Georgia. The Crimson Tide rallied to a 26-23 overtime victory, with Ridley scoring the game-tying touchdown that forced overtime.

There was also the matter of 20 dropped passes over his career. The Falcons led the league in dropped passes last season along with the 49ers. 

“There is no question that we’re pretty honed in on that,” Quinn said. “We understand that people are going to have their drops, they’re going to have their missed plays. In our mind, he far outweighed that in his ability to do what we want him to do. ... We like his hands a lot, and think he can be big-time playmaker.”

Ridley, who thought he should have been taken higher in the draft, comes to Atlanta with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I’m going to prove a lot of people wrong,” Ridley said. “I’m very excited to be coming there with Julio (Jones). I know that I’m going to learn a lot from him and become a better player and a wide receiver. I’m just very, very happy to be in their organization.”

Ridley dropped in the draft because questions about his ability to get off the line of scrimmage against press man-to-man coverage. Some teams believed he was solely a slot receiver.

“I felt I could have been picked way before (the 26th pick),” Ridley said. “I’m going to work hard and prove everybody wrong. Those people who doubted me, I’m going to make everybody a believer.”

The Falcons will count on Ridley to put some big plays back into the attack.

The answer to the original question is yes, he’s an upgrade over Gabriel. 

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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