The Calvin Ridley Conundrum (Fantasy Football)

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By the time the Jacksonville Jaguars take the field in September for their opening game of the 2023 NFL season, it will be 687 days since Calvin Ridley played a snap of football. That’s 22.5 months. That is enough time to become a veterinary tech, an air traffic controller, or a licensed massage therapist. The picture has changed since Ridley played football, and you might have to mentally zoom out to see it. The man is still on his rookie contract. Seriously.

Ridley’s last game on an NFL field was October 24, 2021, just before he stepped away from football to focus on mental health. There was a lot to sift through for Ridley, who was ultimately praised by colleagues and fans alike for stepping away from the game to seek the help he needed. March 2022 brought even more confusion to the situation when Ridley was suspended for violating the NFL’s gambling policy. The league said the gambling allegedly occurred during a five-day stretch in late 2021 when Ridley was not with the team and was away from the club’s facility. Ridley responded to the accusations, stating that he “bet $1,500 total,” but also said, “I don’t have a gambling problem.”

In early March, the NFL fully reinstated Ridley, and was immediately eligible to participate in all team activities. And that team is now the Jacksonville Jaguars. In November, the Jags made a deal with the Atlanta Falcons to acquire the WR, which brings us to this point. The point where when you look at the Jacksonville Jaguars depth chart and see the name Calvin Ridley sitting atop it next to Christian Kirk.

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So how are you supposed to approach the no-doubt talented Mr. Ridley in your fantasy drafts this year? How are you supposed to rank a man who hasn’t played football in two years? Join me as we attempt to dissect the conundrum that is Calvin Ridley.

When addressing Ridley, it is important to dissect the range of outcomes and what they mean for fantasy. I see three big ones. He could be worse with two years away from the game and have a disappointing fantasy year, better and fresher with two years away and have a great fantasy year, or excellent after two years away, but it might not matter. Let’s break down each of these potential outcomes.

Time Makes You Rusty – Older Athlete + New System

It’s OTA time, so you know Twitter is full of videos of spectacular catches and ridiculous throws. Ridley is getting his fair share and he looks good. He looks good running in shorts and a t-shirt against lazy blocking. This is where he SHOULD look good. Nowadays, players know every move from OTAs is captured by at least a dozen cell phones and posted on social media within minutes. They make sure to deliver post-worthy content, otherwise, they are vilified. It might be a different story for Ridley when he is in full pads and playing against a real defense. And the Jags will be playing against some real defenses in 2023. San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, to name a few. Will Ridley have the speed to separate himself? Ridley is currently 28, with a birthday in December, and that is starting to dance on the age line where we begin to see talented pass catchers descend on the other side of the success mountain. Hill, Diggs, Adams, and Kupp are all on the wrong side of 29, and they still have it, but the majority of powerhouse WRs in the league seem to peak around age 26. Did Ridley miss out on the potential best years of his career?

What happens to players who return from a lengthy hiatus? When addressing this issue, our sample is a bit skewed, as most players that are sidelined for a significant amount of time are usually sidelined by injury, which was not what happened to Ridley. We have seen many players lose a step, at least in the first season back. We remember Matthew Betz discussing players having a suboptimal first year back after an ACL tear, to then improve in the second year. We just do not have much data available for pass catchers who miss extended time during the middle of their careers. 

The other thing that happens when a player is gone for an extended period of time is that someone else on the team fills that void – the team must continue to move forward. This could be even more apparent in this case, as Ridley would be returning to a new team. A team that already had a successful receiving plan last season. Christian Kirk finished the season as WR11 in .5 PPR and “no longer just a spot start” Zay Jones even closed out the year as WR26.

Time Heals All Wounds + Fresh As a Daisy 

Another potential outcome for Ridley is success. Some athletes are just that good, and what’s to say that Ridley is not that athlete? The fact that Ridley left football not because of an injury brings the potential of his returning fresher than ever. He has had two fewer years of hits on his body, pounding on those legs, and ridiculous practice and travel schedules. And they do say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The time off not putting his body through brutal hits and exhausting routes might be just what Ridley needs to come back stronger and poised to break out. It seems like one of the key parts to a solid return to the field is what the player does with the time away from football, and Ridley appears to have taken this time seriously. “They say two years off, but what about the healing process that I got with the time off? What if I got faster? What if I got stronger? Obviously, I got wiser, so why can’t I be better? I kind of look at it like that.” It is a fair point. We can’t discount the growth between the ears either – the maturity that Ridley has had to gain over the course of these two years cannot be measured.

Since it has been a while, let’s remember JUST how good Ridley was…

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Games Target Receptions Rec % Yards Y/Rec TDs
2021 5 52 31 60 281 9.1 2
2020 15 143 90 63 1374 15.3 9
2019 13 93 63 68 866 13.7 7
2018 16 92 64 70 821 12.8 10

In 2020, Ridley finished as WR4 in .5 PPR, and looking at his numbers, it looked like he was on the way to repeating in 2021. Even though he played only five games, he was on a 16-game pace of 166 targets, which would have been his highest target share to date. Oh, and remember that at the end of 2020, we discovered he had been playing through a broken foot for the entire season.

It is clear Ridley has the capacity, or at least had the capacity, to be the WR1 on a team. The Jags are a team looking to take a huge step forward this year under the arm of Trevor Lawrence. Last season the Jags were one of the top five teams in WR targets, targeting them at 64.2% – the passing attack was alive and well. So if you believe in Lawrence, you can see the path for Ridley to be his number one and to deliver. With so many weapons on the team, players like Etienne and Kirk cannot be left unguarded, so if Ridley can beat single coverage, he could explode – he has a clear WR1 ceiling.

And he will be playing with the best QB he has ever had in his career. Apologies, Matt Ryan

If you want to read more about the path for Ridley to become a WR1, check out Joe Beldner’s article on the website.

It’s Moo, Like a Cow’s Opinion 

What If Ridley is good, but what if it doesn’t matter?

I mentioned previously the number of weapons available for the Jags.

Ridley seems to be his best when he is a true number one. Where he really excelled was when Julio Jones was out in Atlanta. And now he goes to a team with multiple other options, so does it even matter if he’s good? Does the path exist for him to take advantage of it in a busy Jacksonville offense? In the seven games that Julio Jones missed in 2020, Ridley averaged 109 receiving yards. That led the NFL during those weeks. He also averaged 2.7 receiving yards per route run during those games, which ranked third. Ridley clearly stepped up as the WR1 when Jones left the shoes to be filled. But will he be able to be a true WR1 with the likes of Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, Zay Jones, and Travis Etienne? There will be vacated targets – the team will lose 88 from Marvin Jones and around 20 from a combination of James Robinson and The Postman. Let’s assume Ridley commands approximately 100 targets in the 2023 season. That might get him close to his fantasy numbers from 2018 and 2019, but he would need the TDs to push him over the top. He was WR20 in 2018 and WR25 in 2019, but he had at least seven TDs in those years.  And now he is on a team with solid RBs in Etienne and bruising Tank Bigsby who can run it in from the goal line. He might simply lose the TD opportunities.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where you might be disappointed if you believe in Calvin Ridley and draft him, assuming he will be the clear WR1. Not in Ridley’s skill and performance per se, but just the amount you get. The good thing is that according to Fantasy Football Calculator, Ridley is being drafted at the end of the eighth round as the 39th WR off the board, so you could feasibly have him live up to his draft capital pretty easily. But be careful of that pre-draft hype that could push up Ridley’s ADP. Sure, he does have a great ceiling, but he also has a pretty low floor.

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I can’t tell you what to do with Calvin Ridley; his situation is truly unique and polarizing to fantasy owners. I know several people who truly believe in him and his ability to bounce back, and I know people who will avoid taking him no matter how low (within reason, of course) he falls. But being aware of the possible outcomes for Ridley’s fantasy season can help you decide on your stance. I hope most people are rooting for the man regardless of your thoughts on the athlete. Sure, he did violate the gambling policy and was punished for it, but often we forget that he stepped away initially because of mental health issues, which he said in a letter, caused him to gamble. If you haven’t read the full letter, you should. 

His stance in the letter was brutally honest, and that’s the type of athlete I can get behind.

Comments

bigpapajava says:

Great article. I hope Calvin does well!

Joey Wright says:

Great stuff Julia! I was high on Ridley coming into this draft season. Might move him a bit higher now!

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