Falcons' Matt Ryan on breakout candidate Calvin Ridley: 'He is elite'

Lamar Jackson is impressed by Calvin Ridley's route running (0:31)

Calvin Ridley displays flawess route-running while catching passes, and even Lamar Jackson tweeted how impressed he was. (0:31)

Calvin Ridley has put in work this offseason with the mindset of being elite in 2020. In many ways, quarterback Matt Ryan believes the Atlanta Falcons' third-year receiver is already there.

It’s hard to earn proper recognition when you’re playing on the same offense as arguably the best receiver in the game, Julio Jones. But Ridley, the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, has distinguished himself with 17 touchdowns through his first 29 games. The only active players to have more touchdown receptions in their first two seasons are Odell Beckham Jr. (25), Larry Fitzgerald (18), A.J. Green (18), and Jones (18), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“The one thing that probably impacts Calvin more than any -- and it doesn’t take away from how good of a player he is -- but your statistics get skewed because of the guy that you’re playing on the opposite side from [Jones],” Ryan said. “There’s only so many plays in a game. We have so many talented guys.

“But I think the people who know, the people who have to play against Calvin or try to guard him in man-to-man coverage, know he is elite. He’s exceptional. He’s really, really good.”

Ridley has been a hot topic of discussion this offseason in relation to potential breakout candidates and budding fantasy superstars. Teammate and team captain Ricardo Allen kept referring to the receiver as the "real deal" and kidded he wished he had a Ridley jersey because the guy is so talented.

Ridley was third on the team in receptions last season with 63, behind Jones (99) and tight end Austin Hooper (75). And Ridley missed the final three games because of an abdominal injury.

Now Hooper has gone to Cleveland, although the Falcons traded for another pass-catching tight end, Hayden Hurst, who has created a buzz as a big, athletic target. Jones remains the primary weapon in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s pass-friendly system, yet the added attention he often draws should free up more opportunities for Ridley. Jones had 156 targets last season, Hooper 96, and Ridley 92.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers boasted a pair of 1,000-yard receivers last season, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Why couldn’t the Falcons do the same with Jones, who has six consecutive, 1,300-plus-yard seasons, and Ridley, who finished 134 yards short of 1,000 last season while missing those three games? The last time the Falcons had two 1,000-yard receivers was 2012 with Jones and Roddy White. They’ve done it four times in their history, including three 1,000-yard receivers under June Jones in 1995.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m just real hungry to show people that I’m easily a 1,000-yard receiver, and even better,” Ridley said. “I’m always confident in myself. And I’m just really hungry and want to help the team win as much as I can.”

Ridley's motivation is evident in how much time he puts into developing his craft. A video went viral this offseason of him showing off his stop-and-go route-running against a defender, a clip that inspired south Florida childhood friend and reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson to tweet: “Took that boy for a ride out the gate."

Ridley posted video of himself running curls, digs, outs and comebacks off a hill using explosive movements and fancy footwork. He got a Jugs machine for his home to catch passes from inside and outside of his garage.

“I’ve really been working on pretty much everything but really my legs, getting my legs a lot stronger,” Ridley said. “Trying to get my knees up more; get a little faster. ... I’ve been getting a crazy amount of Jugs in.

“I usually be in OTAs getting crazy Jugs in so I was like, 'I’m going to get [the machine] and I can just use it any time I’m at home, or some days off I can use it just to keep my hands real good.' I should be elite this year.”

ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety who faced the likes of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, knows the makeup of an elite receiver. Bowen’s not ready to put Ridley in his top 10 just yet, but he sees elements of an ascending talent despite the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Ridley not being the same type of physical specimen as his teammate Jones (6-foot-3, 220 pounds).

“In terms of route running, he’s up there,” Bowen said of Ridley. “As a pure route runner -- and this goes back to when he came out of Alabama -- he’s up there. I’m not going to put him in the category of Michael Thomas or Keenan Allen right now. More similar traits to Robert Woods in terms of production and route running.

“The one thing also about Ridley is that he’s very good with Matt Ryan in terms of timing and rhythm. Matt Ryan’s not going to make a lot of second-reaction plays at this point of his career. He’s just not moving like that. So when Matt Ryan puts that back foot in the ground, that ball is coming out. To be successful with a quarterback like that, you’ve got to be detailed in your route running, know where the window is, know when to separate, how to set up the defense. I think Ridley runs routes like a very mature player.”

Ridley’s maturity has a lot to do with learning from one of the best. Glance at the receivers during a practice and you’ll often see Ridley trying to pick the brain of seven-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer Jones.

“I just follow his steps,” Ridley said of Jones. “I want to be as good as him. If I’m watching him and I’m going out there with the right mindset, that’s easy.”