Editor’s note: ahead of a huge day of college football action, make sure you check out today’s early Bowl Game Previews, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl Previews, and all of our 2018 Rookie Profiles. Before you know it, it will be NFL draft day!
There will be a lot happening on the night of the College Football Playoff semifinals. Just one event will be Calvin Ridley, the best receiving prospect in the 2018 class to many, perhaps playing in his final collegiate game against one of the best (if not the best) passing defenses in the country.
As a recruit
Ridley came into the Alabama Crimson Tide program as the highest-rated receiver in the 2015 freshman class. Given that Ridley was effectively two years older than the rest of that class, it wasn’t as hard for him to reach that level in high school. However, with any age advantage in college wiped out, Ridley has fared perfectly well.
Career receiving stats:
Statistics from Sports-Reference.com.
Ridley posting his best on-paper statistical season in his freshman season is a bizarre phenomenon, but can be explained without much difficulty. Most noticeably, the raw statistical drop between 2015 and 2017 can be explained by the games played column – Ridley actually has a higher yards per game mark in ‘17 than ‘15, and would have more receptions, too, if he were used in the same role.
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The harder question to answer is why his stats dropped so much from ‘15 to ‘16, and why his ‘17 numbers aren’t much better than his ‘15 numbers. Those differences can be attributed to a change in Ridley’s surroundings.
In 2015, Jacob Coker threw to Tide receivers for a total of 3,110 yards. He graduated, and Jalen Hurts took over as a freshman the following year, starting out as a much better runner than passer. The result was over 300 fewer yards for the receiving corps to go around. Furthermore, a change in focus for the passing game (from a balanced attack to a play-action, downfield-oriented attack) meant ArDarius Stewart got a greater share of the team’s receiving yardage (in turn, taking away from Ridley).
In 2017, Stewart (and O.J. Howard) graduated, which has left Ridley as the logical extreme of a go-to guy – Ridley’s 37 percent market share of 2017 receiving yards is almost unheard of. If there were simply more raw yards and throws to go around in that passing game, his numbers would be much more eye-popping.
So, his numbers certainly aren’t gaudy at a glance, but given his context, they’re certainly indicative of a great receiver.
On the field – strengths
A lack of weaknesses is a strength in itself, but of all receiving attributes, Ridley’s athleticism and ball skills shine the brightest. It’s not hard to spot the former when watching the Floridian at a glance. He explodes off the line as well as anyone (this alignment, route, and coverage combination is just unfair). He shoots to his spots and through gaps on the field with ease. He maintains his top speed while changing directions. He has a top gear fast enough to pull away from defensive backs.
It’s surprisingly hard to be so solid at all these athletic traits, or at least to utilize them so effectively. Receivers like James Washington struggle to change directions at intermediate levels, while quick, underneath receivers often don’t have the long speed to separate from corners and safeties downfield. Ridley can do both and puts his gifts to full use.
Superb athleticism has spillover effects in other skill areas, most noticeably route running. Ridley puts his physical tools together with mental acumen and refined technique to consistently gain separation from his defenders. Head fakes and body feints work with sharp cuts to create comical separation.
You know a guy has the brains to run routes when he makes his man trip on someone else’s leg 20 yards down the field. You know a guy can lose his man when he approaches top speed in under 10 yards, then reaches a complete stop in one yard. You know he can integrate those traits when he generates this much separation from his man off a simple out route (against a Florida State corner, no less).
It takes more time, meanwhile, to fully appreciate his ball-catching proficiency. This isn’t to say that his ball skills are hard to see, though. You could make a Calvin Ridley highlight reel purely with a collection of his spectacular catches. He has repeatedly proven that he can:
- Hold onto throws while taking shots.
- Make tough grabs while tapping his feet at the sideline (neither are actual completions, but the efforts to get as close to completions as they did are tremendous).
- Track and adjust to deep balls.
- Control and contort his body with perfection.
- Put these talents together on the same play.
If Ridley continues to pay attention to detail with his route running in the pros, he’ll be a tremendous weapon for whichever team he lands on, capable of serving any receiving role (as was exhibited at Alabama, where he regularly played the X, Y, and Z receivers, running short, intermediate, and deep routes).
On the field – weaknesses
There’s little to complain about Ridley as a prospect. Detractors actually point more at numerical “weaknesses” in his profile than in his actual talent. When a player has only posted one 1000-yard receiving season, it’s natural to think he should be producing more. Given his surroundings discussed in the production section, those numbers are much less alarming.
Others will talk about how his age (23 years old, as of this month) makes him a worse prospect, through a couple lines of logic. This is another perfectly reasonable objection, but considering how Ridley has improved his game every year and didn’t take any time to actually break out on the collegiate level (at age 20 in 2015), I’d say those concerns are alleviated.
Finally, standing at about 6’ or 6’1”, Ridley isn’t the tallest. However, receivers don’t have noticeably better or worse chances at NFL success as long as they’re 5’10” or taller. Furthermore, short guys like Antonio Brown have shown that smaller receivers can have plenty of success as split-out receivers. Putting those two factors together, I’m not worried about Ridley’s average build.
As far as actual skills are concerned, he’s merely fine in some areas – release against press coverage, most notably. I saw him struggle a couple times with physical corners, but he also found success just as much. Really, the biggest knock there is a lack of experience. Thus, it takes some forecasting to predict how well he’ll deal with pressing corners in the pros, but given his footwork and the savvy elements of the rest of his game, I’m not very concerned.
What to watch for on Monday
Simply put, Calvin Ridley has been the heart and soul of the Crimson Tide passing game for the last three years, particularly in 2017. When Alabama has needed a play through the air, they’ve turned to him time and time again (for one example, watch the Tide’s game against Mississippi State).
Against an elite defense like Clemson’s, the Tide will struggle to generate offense to a much higher degree than they’re used to. This means that that playcalling will have to be creative and that they will have to rely on Ridley even more (as the irresistable Tide running game meets the immovable Tiger defensive front).
This is awesome news for draft junkies and college football fans. Ridley has already shown off his versatility between his three seasons, but Tide offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will have to pull out all the stops against Clemson, which means we’ll see the best route combinations that Ridley and the Tide receivers have to offer. Furthermore, as the running game faces resistance for one of the first times this season, Ridley will be called upon to move the chains and generally pitch in big plays throughout the game.
We should get to see (a) the best of and (b) the most of Calvin Ridley this season. That’s a treat. And for those who aren’t yet convinced of his talent, they’ll get to see all he has to offer against the best of the best. I can’t wait.
Calvin Ridley’s strengths – ball skills, athleticism, footwork, and route running – are elite or approach that level, while his weaknesses – height and press release – are merely ordinary. In a weaker receiving draft class, this combination of skills is enough to make Ridley my number one receiver without much of a second thought. Depending on both of their landing spots in the NFL Draft, he could even jump Derrius Guice to be my 1.02 in the entire 2018 rookie class.
However, I’m just one person. I’ve seen an increasing amount of people place Ridley highly, but there are still plenty of analysts who think less of him. He ranks just 14th in DLF’s devy rankings.
It’ll be interesting to see how these camps act in the coming months. Will the pro-Ridley side become more bearish? What about the opposite? Could he remain this polarizing up to the draft? I can’t answer any of those questions. However, I do feel perfectly comfortable with him as my number one receiver, so if I had to guess, folks will be scrambling for Ridley shares in May. Here’s to watching this situation unfold in the coming months.