JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When the Jacksonville Jaguars traded for receiver Calvin Ridley at the deadline in November they didn’t know how much longer his indefinite gambling suspension would last or what kind of player he would be after what would be close to a two-year layoff.
Ridley, 28, has been away from the game since October 31, 2021, when he stepped away for mental health reasons, and then was suspended the following March for betting on NFL games -- including on his team at the time, the Atlanta Falcons.
But now that Ridley, the No. 26 overall pick in 2018, was reinstated on March 6, the Jaguars will have the entire offseason to figure out what kind of player he will be. If Ridley returns to 2020 form -- which is what the Jaguars are hoping for -- they could have an offense good enough, on paper, to make them a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2023.
“We feel really good about Calvin and what he can bring to the organization,” GM Trent Baalke said shortly after the 2022 season ended. “We feel really good about the guys we have under contract. I thought that group this year did an excellent job, but the most important thing is we’re going to surround Trevor [Lawrence] with the same cast of characters, if you will, the same cast of receiving threats, the same running back core for the most part."
It didn’t seem possible during the first half of the season, but the Jaguars ended up with No. 10 overall offense in the NFL in 2022. They finished 10th in scoring and passing, ninth in third-down conversions and 14th in rushing in the first season in coach Doug Pederson’s scheme. Receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram -- all of whom were signed in free agency last March -- set career highs in receptions and receiving yards, and Engram set the single-season franchise record for most receptions and receiving yards by a tight end.
Running back Travis Etienne Jr., who missed his rookie season with a Lisfranc injury, ran for 1,125 yards despite not officially taking over as the primary back until the team traded James Robinson to the New York Jets in late October.
So, how does Ridley fit in?
Ridley adds elite speed (he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine in 2018) and pairs with Jones (who ran a 4.45 at the combine in 2017) to give the Jaguars two players that can stretch the field. Ridley was one of the NFL’s best receivers in his first three seasons in the league. Per ESPN Stats & Information, he was one of six pass catchers with 3,000 receiving yards and 25 receiving touchdowns from 2018-20. The other five were tight end Travis Kelce and wide receivers Mike Evans, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams and Tyler Lockett.
In 2020, Ridley had his best season when he caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards (tied for fifth in the NFL) and nine touchdowns. He did that without a lot of help because Julio Jones was limited to nine games because of injuries and the Atlanta Falcons’ No. 2 receiver was Russell Gage, who caught 72 passes for 786 yards.
Ridley will certainly have much more help around him in Jacksonville, and his presence should allow Kirk to be even more successful in the slot. Kirk posted the second-most receiving yards of any player when lined up in the slot in 2022 (815 yards, behind only CeeDee Lamb’s 826), per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Ridley will also be receiving the ball from quarterback Trevor Lawrence -- who was one of the league’s best quarterbacks in the second half of the season. From Week 9 and on he was second in the NFL in completion percentage and passer rating and threw 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
Lawrence got off to a rough start in the wild-card playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers, throwing four first-half interceptions while the Jaguars fell behind 27-0. However, after his fourth interception Lawrence completed 25-of-34 passes for 262 yards and four touchdowns and scored a two-point conversion to lead the Jaguars to a 31-30 victory. Pederson’s expectation is that Lawrence will be a more complete player in his second season in the offense.
“As great as [Lawrence] was, and as good as he was at the end of the year, he can be better,” Pederson said. “That’s the challenge that we’ll have for him when he gets back in April. I know that will be the challenge that he will put on himself to play and be a better version of himself moving forward.”
Adding a proven playmaker like Ridley will make the offense even harder to defend because he gets open more than only a handful of receivers. Per ESPN Analytics’ receiver tracking metrics, Ridley was tied for the third-best open score in the NFL since 2020 with 88, behind only Diontae Johnson (93) and Davante Adams (90) and tied with A.J. Brown. The open stat measures how much a receiver gets open on all their routes compared to expectation. The grading scale goes from 0-100, with 50 being average.
Ridley can help Lawrence and the Jaguars offense build upon last season's success and also help himself at the same time. The receiver will be playing 2023 on a fifth-year option of $11.12 million. If he plays well he would be positioned for a big contract, whether it’s from the Jaguars or another team.
More importantly, if he plays well, it also means an already good Jaguars’ offense could be great and lead the team to a deep playoff run.
“I’m excited to be in Duval,” Ridley said in an 18-second video posted to the Jaguars’ official Twitter account. “Excited for the season. Excited for my new journey. Excited to be a part of this organization. Excited to meet my new teammates, my new quarterback. Duuuval. Let’s get it.”