Reception Perception: Calvin Ridley and Fighting Over What You Trust

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I don’t “trust the tape.” In few walks of life do we log something as absolute truth simply because we observed it at face value. It’s nonsensical how prevalent that mindset is in the football universe.The folks willing to simply trust their ability to always glean objective truth by sitting down and holistically watching a football player without a guiding force must have never been wronged by a lover, or even been the lover to do wrong. God bless them. Those of us the other side of the tracks are a little less inclined to always take what we see at face value. You can observe your lover doing all the right things, say everything you want to hear and your brain can log all the items it needs to convince you that the force of love is at work here. Yet, at a moment’s notice, those observations can be rendered worthless by your partner stepping out on you or experiencing an unexplainable sudden change of heart. What you saw and felt because of it doesn’t matter anymore; your trust was misplaced.

You develop trust issues in a relationship by having the faith you placed in believing a lover’s actions be shattered in epic fashion. In the same vein, it’s puzzling why all of us who evaluate football players don’t have trust issues. If you’ve watched football for any amount of time, your observations of a college player on film have led you to a hilariously off-base prediction.

Calvin Ridley is this year’s “trust the tape” player among the offensive rookie prospects. In fairness, the need for a defense is real. When the subject of Ridley’s outlook comes up, each sect of the football scatters to their respective corners like roaches when the lights come on.

His age is a major red flag,” they’ll say through the bullhorns while standing on the street corner.

He’s not an NFL-caliber athlete,” they”ll exclaim as they whack you over the head with his seventh percentile SPARQ score from the NFL Scouting Combine.

Trust the tape,” they’ll declare with almost admiral fortitude when challenged with any numerical point that runs contrary to the player they believed in from watching him play at Alabama.

The truth is, all of the above arguments have some validity, just not without some degree of uncertainty these zealots just won’t allow. Well-researched models that provide probabilities for draft prospect success rates should not be so easily waved off. Objective metrics should carry some weight. However, we can absolutely learn something from watching a football player exist in the habit of a game on film, as long as it’s done so with a structured approach and conveyed with humility.

I do what I do with the Reception Perception methodology for those exact reasons. I do not trust my eyes to scrape the unquestioned truth from just watching the tape. However, with a rubric-based charting system to keep me honest and provide results to compare across a sample of players, we can glean something about how these wide receivers play. I’m a nobody that doesn’t know much. It’s the methodology that reveals crucial findings. Here’s where I stand on Calvin Ridley’s pro prospects after evaluating him with the Reception Perception method and with the noise removed.

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Alignment and Target Data

Games sampled: Tennessee, FSU, LSU, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia

Polished: the Calvin Ridley story. Everything about the way the wide receiver was deployed at the University of Alabama looks like a future NFL player.

Ridley has experience playing all over the field at the college level. He took the majority of his sampled snaps at the left wide receiver spot (53.9 percent) and shifted into the slot on 21.5 percent. Ridley played on the line of scrimmage on 67.9 percent of his snaps but saw more than enough plays with chances for a free release from the line.

Much like many of the top receivers in this draft class, Ridley operated with insufficient quarterback play. Nevertheless, those players locked-in on him as the clear engine of the passing game. Ridley saw a target on 30.4 percent of his routes run over the games sampled. As such, he was the only player to clear 300 receiving yards on the Crimson Tide offense last season.

Success Rate vs. Coverage

If you’re a fan of Calvin Ridley and his pro projection based on the film, it’s likely because of his route-running. You’ve witnessed him separate at all levels of the field, dusting college defensive backs in his wake. Seeing him do this at the highest level of competition in college football makes it easy to imagine him dropping into an NFL offense Day 1.

Reception Perception confirms Ridley’s unusually strong prowess as a route-runner. A true technician, this prospect consistently got open against SEC cornerbacks. Ridley posted a 71.4 percent success rate vs. man coverage score, a strong score that shows his ability to create separation. When facing zone defenses, Ridley was essentially uncoverable. His 91.1 percent success rate vs. zone coverage is the highest score to date among prospects charted for Reception Perception. He reads coverages like a quarterback and is smart enough to know when/where to break routes to sit in the open spots.

Not only did Ridley show out against both forms of coverage, he was also a solid performer when tasked with getting off the press at the line of scrimmage. Over 43 press sampled attempts, Ridley maintained a 67.4 percent success vs press coverage. That mark falls at the 70th percentile among prospects charted over the last three years. It’s not an elite score, but it’s far from an alarming note in his projection. If anything, Ridley’s NFL team may find it better to let him operate as a slot/flanker hybrid receiver in order to consistently get him a free release from press coverage.

Route Data

Continuing the theme of highlighting Ridley’s strengths, we examine the specific routes he ran at Alabama. While some view him as a short-area threat at the NFL-level, that’s not how he was used in college.

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Ridley ran the dig and out routes at a rate above the three-year prospect average. Those are the high-end pro-style patterns. He was a big-time threat to gain chunk yardage in the intermediate sections of the field on these two routes. NFL coaches watching Ridley execute on digs and outs will be comforted as they see a prospect already experiencing some of what he’ll be tasked with at the next level.

It’s also worth noting that Ridley ran the post and corner routes at a rate consistent with the prospect average. This wasn’t a receiver just working dump-off patterns. Ridley was used as a vertical threat in college. Not only does he have the raw speed needed to get down the field, but he has all the necessary deceptive moves to leave defensive backs on their heels before breaking on the post or corner.

Ridley’s experience trying his hand at a variety of routes will certainly endear him to NFL decision-makers. What might make them fall in love was just how notably incredible he was at getting open on those plays.

The only route where Ridley didn’t score above the NFL average was the nine route. Indeed, he’s not a Brandin Cooks-type player who can win on vertical routes with pure speed. He’ll create big plays on those post and corner routes where his technical mastery will come into play.

Any other way you slice it, this is an incredible result for Ridley. Not only was he a high-scorer on the digs and outs that he ran frequently, he posted pristine scores on patterns he’ll run most often at the next level. The vast majority of NFL receivers run slants and curls over and over again. It’s those routes where most of the production comes from at the position. Ridley’s 94.7 percent success rate on curl routes is crucial. When a receiver runs this route, they have to show layers of technical nuance that goes into being a great route runner, as D.J. Moore discussed with me in a recent interview.

Make no mistake, Calvin Ridley is a polished, clean and damn good route runner. It’s hard to imagine a player like this not finding some level of success in the NFL.

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Ancillary Metrics

For all the deserved praise heaped at the feet of Calvin Ridley for his route-running ability, there must also be some skepticism raised. We should be comfortable with his separation and polish being more than enough to lock him into a long NFL lifespan. The question is whether there are more tools in his arsenal to make that the run of a long-lasting star.

With how much space he afforded himself on his routes, Ridley got plenty of to show off his ability to create in the open field. The results were nothing impressive. Ridley went down on first contact on 64.7 percent of his “in space” attempts in the games sampled. He was too often brought down by the initial defender and doesn’t appear to have the needed counters to elude tacklers.

On the other hand, we didn’t get to see much of Ridley winning the ball in the air because of his ability to cleanly separate. Not only that, but Ridley didn’t play with a passer willing to rifle the ball into tight spaces or tested contested situations. As such, Ridley only registered five contested catch attempts over six sampled games. That’s nothing. Yet, it’s still worth noting that this prospect didn’t show the ability to crush those limited situations, converting just one of those five chances.

A lack of physicality to win contested catches has haunted fellow Alabama receiver Amari Cooper into the NFL over his three-year career. Like Ridley, Cooper is an elite separator, but he’s never been an asset for the Raiders on 50/50 balls. It’s a minor note in both players’ portfolio but it’s part of the reason why we’re all still waiting for Cooper to take the next step and become a dominant No. 1 wideout. It’s worth wondering if we’ll be asking the same of 2018’s Crimson Tide receiver prospect if we set him up with those expectations entering the NFL.

Going Forward

After charting Calvin Ridley with Reception Perception, it’s clear that this is a good but minorly flawed prospect. Ridley has a high-end skill with his ability to run routes like a pro and create separation but some question comes with his ability to excel at the catch point and beyond.

It’s exactly why all the sects mentioned at the top have valid reasons to assert the claims their doctrines require. Let’s just do it in a way that welcomes the views of the other sides when speaking of a process that has no absolute answers.

In my view, Calvin Ridley is a good prospect. It’s certainly worth asking whether he can be the lead-dog, No. 1 wideout in any offensive system. Without question, it’s up for debate whether he should be the unquestioned top receiver in draft rankings this year. Other players have resumes with just as much claim to that title.

When all is said and done, Ridley looks like a receiver who will end up as a quality complementary asset in an NFL offense. His best home would be as a long-term flanker who can move inside on occasion to play as the slot. He’ll help his next team win at all levels of the field and earn trust quickly. We can trust that.

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If you’re interested in more Reception Perception analysis, make sure to visit our Reception Perception pages for college prospect evaluations and pre-order The Ultimate Draft Kit at the early bird price for access to 50 NFL players’ full data this summer. You can keep up with all of the work using the #ReceptionPerception hashtag on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Get full Reception Perception data and written evaluations by Matt Harmon on top 50 wide receivers for the 2018 NFL season in the 2018 Ultimate Draft Kit

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