Spin Cycle: The WR1 case for Calvin Ridley

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley (0) runs drills before an NFL preseason football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Two years ago, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, then playing for the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL, stepped away from his team after playing in just five games in order to focus on his mental health. That following offseason, it was revealed that Ridley had actually been placing bets behind the scenes on games played during the previous season; as a result, Ridley was issued a year-long suspension that would keep him out for the entirety of the 2022 campaign. Ridley, once one of the league’s most promising young offensive stars, is now nearly two years removed from his last NFL action. The year is now 2023, and Ridley has officially been reinstated by the league and is preparing with his new teammates on the Jacksonville Jaguars for the upcoming season. 

Shifting our focus to fantasy football, the virtual football management and simulation-style game that has been responsible for disintegrating countless friendships over the years, how does Ridley stand in comparison to the other receivers being taken off of draft boards? If you were a casual football fan and just read the introduction to this piece, the obvious answer would be that Ridley is borderline not draftable; he hasn’t shown that he has the ability to be a major offensive contributor for multiple seasons, a timeframe that has seen the league evolve dramatically. In addition, the 28-year-old now joins a team that saw many offensive players take steps forward last season and figures to have many mouths to feed once more in 2023. When it comes to fantasy football, predicting success for certain players will prove to be easier to predict than for others; high NFL Draft selections and young, budding talents are good bets to take steps forward every year while seasoned veterans are able to provide weekly consistency. So, Ridley definitely doesn’t satisfy the definition of a “consistent” player and at this point in his career is far from a young, budding star. 

He should still be one of the top-12 wide receivers selected in fantasy drafts, which would make him a WR1 in 12-team leagues. 

“What blasphemy! Ridley is simply too risky of a fantasy play to make such a claim!” This is what you must be telling yourself right now, or at least what I imagine you would be telling yourself after highlighting every reason to not select Ridley in fantasy drafts. Well you can rest assured, because such a claim cannot be made with hard evidence to back it up. 

In 2020, while still a member of the Falcons, Ridley recorded the best statistical season of his career by far. This season also coincided with the first season that fellow Atlanta wideout, the all-time great Julio Jones, played less than 15 games in a season since Ridley was drafted in 2018. While Ridley was always a solid second option behind Jones and posted solid yardage and touchdown totals under the great’s shadow, he absolutely exploded when he became quarterback Matt Ryan’s clear top option. That season, he tallied 90 receptions on 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine trips to the end zone. He finished just outside of the top-10 wide receivers that season in catches and was fifth in touchdown catches. Ridley also had a knack for moving the chains, as his 65 first downs converted also ranked fifth amongst wideouts that season. 

That season resulted in a WR4 finish for Ridley in standard leagues. This came during a year where Matt Ryan finished fourth in the NFL in passing yards, though many of those yards yielded empty results both on the field and for fantasy purposes. As a team in 2020, Atlanta’s offense managed just the 16th most points in the league, with Ryan barely finishing as a QB1 that season despite being one of the NFL’s top passers. The lesson to be learned here? Sure, Ridley was an elite fantasy option in 2020, but he could have been even better (Just two more touchdowns would bump him up to the WR3 for that season). That season, the three wide receivers ranked ahead of Ridley in fantasy output were Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs. Only Diggs tallied less touchdowns than Ridley, though all three contributed to teams that finished as the first, second, and sixth-highest scoring teams that season. To say that fantasy output relates to the offensive prowess of the real-world football teams would be an understatement. The good news here is that Ridley will not be suiting up for the lowly Falcons, who have continued their downfall as the wideout has been away from the field. Instead, he’ll be with the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that finished among the top-10 highest scoring teams last season and is primed to continue to grow on offense over the next several years. 

Remember earlier when we mentioned that a reasonable criteria for predicting fantasy success would be a young, budding star with projectability, perhaps a player who was selected early in the real-life NFL Draft? At the quarterback position, there may be no better example of a high draft pick poised for a major breakout than Jacksonville’s own Trevor Lawrence who, at the ripe age of 23, will be entering his third professional season after being selected first overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. After a forgettable rookie campaign, Lawrence took the leap that many were anticipating last season, as he finished in the top-10 among NFL quarterbacks in passing yards and threw for a healthy 25 scores. He did so with pinpoint accuracy; of all the quarterbacks who had more than 4,000 passing yards in 2022, he was one of just three with less than 10 interceptions. In addition, his 584 pass attempts barely placed him behind Jared Goff for the seventh-highest number of passes attempted by one player last year. Though Lawrence proved to be an improvement last season, the consensus is that he will finally reach true superstar status this season. 

In 2022, the Jaguars were able to achieve points due to a balanced offensive approach that allowed many players to perform on a high level. Despite Lawrence finishing near the top in nearly every passing statistic, the Jags had just one receiver eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in Christian Kirk. Zay Jones and Evan Engram contributed nicely with over 800 and 700 yards apiece, respectively, while an aging Marvin Jones Jr. also managed 500 yards. Even running back Travis Etienne was responsible for a solid chunk of Lawrence’s air yards with over 300 receiving yards of his own. It’s clear that that Jacksonville has a plethora of weapons they can utilize on offense, so why rely so heavily on Ridley? 

The fact is that Kirk, Lawrence’s top option from one season ago, was able to attain success thanks largely to a 27% target share from the quarterback. Enter Ridley, who comes into the wide receiver room as the clear alpha in terms of talent and has made tremendous strides this offseason to create a natural connection with Lawrence. With Ridley sliding into the Jaguars’ WR1 role previously held by Kirk, and as Lawrence continues to evolve as an NFL passer, the wide receiver should achieve some degree of success regardless of his opportunities. However, chances are that Ridley will demand a target share closer to Kirk’s impressive 27% from one season ago. The math here is quite simple: lots of opportunities plus the presence of a dynamic offense around a player is likely to yield fantasy success. In Ridley’s case, that success could be league-winning if you jump on his potential early. 

As fantasy draft season continues to roll on, Ridley is exiting draft boards around the 20th wide receiver mark, entrenching himself firmly in WR2 territory. However, given his pure talent and the talent around him on an up-and-coming team in Jacksonville, his upside lies much higher than that. The least full season Ridley had played, he proved exactly what type of season he is capable of recording when allowed to work atop his team’s depth chart. While his time away from the sport is the biggest cause for concern, every piece is there to enable Ridley to catapult back into elite fantasy contributor territory. 

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