FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On Sunday, inactive Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson wore a T-shirt on the sidelines with a photo of a then-teammate and three words written on it: “Free Calvin Ridley.”
“I wore a shirt and told them, ‘Free him,’” Patterson said Wednesday. “And then we traded him. So it was probably on me. I shouldn’t have worn that shirt.”
Patterson laughed as he said it, because as much as Patterson has influence as a fan favorite in Atlanta, any decisions about Ridley’s future were made by general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith.
Ridley, who hadn’t played since October 2021 when he stepped away from football to work on his mental health, was indefinitely suspended in March for gambling. In exchange for Ridley, the Falcons received a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 conditional draft pick that could range from a fourth-rounder if Ridley makes the team to a second-rounder if he signs a contract extension with the Jaguars.
Ridley being traded by the Falcons did not come as a surprise -- perhaps the timing, since it's unclear when he will be reinstated. Ridley cannot apply to return to the NFL until Feb. 15, 2023. Even before the gambling investigation, the Falcons were looking into moving on.
When the NFL informed the Falcons on Feb. 9 of an investigation into Ridley for gambling, Fontenot said Atlanta was in discussions with teams about potential deals for the wide receiver. Atlanta pulled back from trade discussions and did not begin others to await the conclusion of the investigation.
“We were very transparent with everything throughout the season with the way everything played out,” Fontenot said in March. “We did our best to be supportive of him and his family, and then we get into the offseason, and it was a surprise to all of us when we on Feb. 9 got the call from the league and told us that there was an investigation.”
Ridley’s future with the Falcons had been a question since October 2021, when the receiver chose not to travel with the Falcons to London to play the New York Jets. He returned after the team’s bye and played against the Miami Dolphins, catching four passes for 26 yards and a touchdown.
Ridley made his lone post-London media appearance on Oct. 21, 2021, before the Dolphins game. He said he spent his two-week break resting and being with family, dealing with personal matters.
“I had something going on, had to get it right,” Ridley said. “I don’t think it was going to take too much time.”
Ridley believed it would be a short-term absence and didn’t get into specifics because he wanted to keep his personal life personal. It was part of a tumultuous first half of the 2021 season.
That included Ridley’s home being broken into during the 2021 season-opener against Philadelphia – part of a years-long series of crimes allegedly committed by a gang targeting the homes of famous people around Atlanta. Ridley never addressed the robbery publicly.
In the five games he played for the Falcons in 2021, he never had more than 80 yards in a game. He was targeted by quarterback Matt Ryan often -- eight-plus targets each week -- and caught five or more passes in every game but his last, against Miami, when he had four.
Ridley returned for the Dolphins game on Oct. 24, 2021, which would be his final game with the Falcons. Seven days later, he left the team.
He was made inactive for the Oct. 31, 2021, game against Carolina. In the fourth quarter, Ridley released a statement saying he was stepping away from football to focus on his mental health.
It was a difficult end for a season that began with so much promise. Ridley, who had 90 catches, 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020, and the Falcons had traded Julio Jones to Tennessee in June 2021 and picked up Ridley's fifth-year option.
The Falcons continually offered support to Ridley publicly while Smith deflected questions about the receiver’s status throughout the remainder of the 2021 season. But by the offseason, with the Falcons dealing with major salary cap issues, it was clear they were at least listening to potential options about their No. 1 receiver -- at least prior to the gambling suspension.
Even Tuesday’s trade had been in consideration for a while. Coach Doug Pederson said the Jaguars had Ridley on a list of potential wide receivers last offseason when they were looking at options to add for second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence. It was the Jaguars who decided to make the move on Ridley, despite the uncertainty around his reinstatement.
“These discussions have been ongoing for a long time and everything we do here, we understand there’s a lot of parties involved in it,” Smith said Wednesday. “A cause and effect in a tough business and always do everything in the best interest of the team and in regards to the players we got.”
The suspension changed the parameters somewhat. It tolled the fifth year of Ridley's rookie contract from 2022 to 2023 and made the $11.1 million attached to it no longer guaranteed. If he hadn't been suspended, Ridley's $11.1 million fifth-year option had been fully guaranteed -- and with the Falcons hamstrung by the salary cap, exploring a move with a high-priced player had to be considered, much like the team did with quarterback Matt Ryan, linebacker Deion Jones and Julio Jones during the first two years of the Fontenot-Smith regime.
Ridley may have been more tradeable because the money is no longer fully guaranteed, lessening the risk of acquiring him. Making Drake London the No. 8 pick in the draft and the first receiver off the board also signaled the Falcons were preparing for a post-Ridley future.
“This wasn’t something that happened at the trade deadline,” Smith said. “It was a long process. So leave it at that.”
Patterson spoke with Ridley prior to the trade and let him know he had his support. He wasn’t alone.
“It was bittersweet,” tight end Kyle Pitts said. “Because obviously I love the guy. Taught me a lot my first year.”
Ridley was voted a captain in 2021 for the first time in his career. To Ridley, it showed “that I’m doing something right.”
“He meant a lot,” Pitts said. “Everybody loved him. And I’m sure he’s going to go down to Jacksonville and do the same, because he’s just a great person and that’s just off the field.
“On the field he’s an even better mentor so he’s a great guy and wish the best for him.”
While his teammates wanted Ridley to stick around, there was also the understanding a fresh start might be best for all parties. To Pitts, Ridley’s reaction seemed like “a sigh of relief.”
Atlanta drafted London in the first round, the second straight season they used a top-10 pick on a pass-catcher. London leads the team in targets (49), receptions (30) and receiving yards (346) in an offense heavily focused on the run game, which ranks fourth in the NFL.
So all along, it appeared as if the Falcons were preparing for a post-Ridley future -- one that now has more clarity both off the field and on it.
ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco contributed to this story.