Calvin Ridley’s emergence eases Falcons’ worries at receiver

Credit: AJC

Here's a quick look at Calvin Ridley's stats from the 2020 season.

Credit: AJC

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series looking at Falcons position groups going into the offseason.

During training camp, Calvin Ridley revealed an individual goal he had for himself. He wanted to go over the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career, seeing that he was on track to do so in 2019 before a season-ending abdominal injury took that from him.

Although the Falcons ended the 2020 season with a 4-12 record, with Ridley lamenting each loss, the young receiver was able to reach his goal. He played in 15 of 16 games, recording 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. After he crossed the thousand-yard barrier, Ridley noted that he believes he one day will go for over 1,500 yards in a season.

Ridley did his damage with star receiver Julio Jones nursing a hamstring injury for most of the season. Ridley, along with his counterparts, proved that the passing game can still be successful without Jones, which obviously will bring about some questions for new coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot this offseason.

With that in mind, here’s an early look at where things stand at receiver entering the offseason.

Contracts expiring: Laquon Treadwell, a former first-round selection by the Minnesota Vikings, spent most of the 2020 season on the Falcons’ practice squad before he was elevated to the active roster late in the season. He is set to be a free agent, as he was signed only for the remainder of the year.

Brandon Powell, who also was the Falcons’ primary return specialist, will be a restricted free agent, giving the Falcons a good chance to bring him back if they want. Christian Blake will be an exclusive rights free agent, which means if the Falcons offer him a one-year deal at the NFL minimum, he cannot negotiate with other teams.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones makes a first-down catch against Seattle Seahawks strong safety Jamal Adams during the second half Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones makes a first-down catch against Seattle Seahawks strong safety Jamal Adams during the second half Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Still under contract: Jones is under contract until 2024 and will carry a sizable salary-cap number of more than $23 million in 2021. A post-June 1 trade could reduce that number, which is something the new front office surely will mull over. At the same time, Jones’ talent is such that the organization could choose to renegotiate other contracts to keep Jones on board without any change.

Ridley and Russell Gage were drafted in 2018, with Gage entering the final year of his rookie contract. If the Falcons pick up Ridley’s fifth-year option since he was a first-rounder, he will be under contract through 2022. Olamide Zaccheaus, an undrafted receiver in 2019, is entering the final year of his contract as well.

Shortly after the season ended, the Falcons signed receivers Chris Rowland and Greg Dortch to reserve/futures contracts.

Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage goes up for a first down catch over Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage goes up for a first down catch over Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

2020 performance: The Falcons’ passing attack primarily was what drove the offense. Gage finished second on the roster with 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns, giving him career highs in all of those categories. In fact, Gage’s breakout season was better than any season he had in college at LSU.

In nine games, Jones caught 51 passes for 771 yards and three touchdowns. Ridley, in particular, had eight games over 100 yards. While the run game struggled, the passing attack rarely had off weeks thanks to a talented group of receivers on the roster.

Offseason outlook: The top question involves Jones and what his future with the franchise will be. Otherwise, the Falcons don’t have many worries elsewhere at receiver and won’t need to address this position in free agency. Ridley is a true No. 1 receiver, with Gage and Zaccheaus proving they can provide valuable complementary roles. With the salary cap the way it is, the Falcons aren’t going to be able to bring in a top-flight option looking for a big second contract.

Falcons wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (17) catches the ball in the end zone for a touchdown during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Zacchaeus made the catch despite being fouled on the play. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Falcons wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (17) catches the ball in the end zone for a touchdown during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Zacchaeus made the catch despite being fouled on the play. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

2021 draft options: One could assume that quarterback, offensive line and edge rusher all are more important positions to draft than receiver. But if LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase is at the top of the Falcons’ draft board, it may be hard to pass on him given the uncertainty with Jones’ future. Chase opted out of the 2020 season, but he was remarkable in 2019 with an LSU offense that obliterated everyone. He was considered the best receiver on that roster, which included Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson, who just went for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie.

Behind Chase, there should be a slew of receivers taken in the first round of what is another loaded class. But the only option competing with Chase to be the draft’s top receiver taken is Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.

LSU’s Terrace Marshall and Purdue’s Rondale Moore could be options in the early second round. Mississippi’s Elijah Moore could provide great value at the position in the third.

Conclusion: Ridley gives the Falcons a luxury to start thinking about life without Jones. That doesn’t mean it will happen, of course. And if the Falcons want to add a receiver to the mix, the talent already present makes the draft the most ideal place to do that.

Previous stories in this series

Falcons will hope new coach turns offensive line around

Falcons seek to fill out tight end room with only one under contract

Mixed results lead to questions with Falcons’ special teams

Falcons’ defensive line needs better sack production in 2021

Falcons linebackers offered stability on struggling defense

Next staff will have some retooling to do in secondary

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