FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley stood in front of the table off to the side of the practice field that October afternoon, answering questions about why he didn’t travel with the team to London, he said he knew it would be a short-term break.
No one could have expected, at the time, it might be the last time Ridley would talk as a member of the Falcons. But after Monday’s news announcing Ridley has been suspended for at least a year for gambling on games in November, it’s hard to see there being any other outcome.
That his contract is pushed back a year probably won’t matter at this point. How could the Falcons trust Ridley again? Never mind that Atlanta put its full support behind Ridley as he worked through mental health struggles.
Never mind that the team stood by him when he abruptly stepped away from the game -- and his teammates -- 24 hours before the Falcons would play, and lose to, the Panthers in October. But now, when he was away, when the team was offering him as much support as it could, Ridley was doing one of the things every player in every sport knows you’re not supposed to do.
You cannot bet on games in the sport you play. Period.
What was Ridley thinking at the time? Other than tweets sent after the announcement on Monday -- in which he admitted to gambling -- we don’t truly know. And regarding whatever Ridley issues continues to deal with, you hope he’s getting help.
But he also has to know this was one of the ultimate no-nos. There are signs posted nearly everywhere in locker rooms. There are videos shown to teams. The penalties if you’re caught -- every time -- are severe, from lifetime bans to what Ridley now has, which is a minimum of a year-long suspension.
And that should end his time in Atlanta.
What Ridley’s poor decision-making does for the Falcons in the short-term is help illuminate a plan. It begins the process of providing salary-cap relief to a rough financial situation. With Ridley off the books, the Falcons get $11.1 million in cap space, putting them under the cap.
Will it give them enough money to be active in free agency? No. Will it be the only move they’ll have to make in order to become a cap-healthy team? Not even close. More moves will have to come, whether it is restructures, extensions, pay cuts, trades or releases.
Atlanta will have to go bargain shopping again in free agency and try to find players like Cordarrelle Patterson, who exceeded his contract, and safety Erik Harris, who met the expectations of his. And Ridley’s suspension doesn’t change the realities of quarterback Matt Ryan’s massive cap hit or linebacker Deion Jones’ tricky contract or the big numbers currently held by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and left tackle Jake Matthews.
But it offers a true understanding of what is necessary for Atlanta.
Wide receiver becomes a clear need. The Falcons already had a lot of receiver spots to fill with Russell Gage and Tajae Sharpe being unrestricted free agents and Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake being restricted free agents unlikely to be tendered.
Now, add a true No. 1 receiver to that list. Could this help Atlanta bring back Gage? Maybe, but the truth about Gage is he is a good complementary receiver and not a No. 1. If a team chooses to overpay Gage in free agency, he probably won’t return to Atlanta, although the Falcons like him.
Otherwise, figure the Falcons will scan the list of available players and perhaps seek out a receiver needing a one-year prove-it deal or a player Falcons coach Arthur Smith believes can break out in his offense as a sensible free agent, and that player with a rookie or two.
So a receiver at No. 8 -- perhaps Garrett Wilson or Drake London or Jameson Williams -- becomes a realistic option. Or, at worst, taking one on Day 2 of the draft. Luckily for Atlanta, this class is deep at receiver, so there will be options in the second and third rounds who should be able to play right away if the Falcons look elsewhere (edge rusher, offensive line, cornerback) at No. 8.
The other thing to remember is there was always the chance Atlanta was going to end up in a Ridley-less situation. They just might have received some future capital in return. Now it's tough to see any team making a move for Ridley, even in the win-at-all-costs world of the NFL.
That may still happen. But it won’t be until 2023 -- if at all.