Calvin Ridley: Alabama’s Pro-Ready Pass Catcher
The Alabama WR is the most polished of the 2018 draft
Calvin Ridley has been a staple of Alabama’s offense since he put up 89 receptions and 1,045 yards as a freshman in 2015. He is the hub of their passing game, leading the team in receptions for three consecutive seasons. And while in past years he has faced some competition for touches from the likes of ArDarius Stewart (who actually outgained Ridley in 2016) and O.J. Howard, this season he has shouldered the burden as Alabama’s only legitimate weapon in the passing game. While his raw numbers are not as impressive as those of James Washington, for example, his market share has been impressive. Market share in this context refers to Ridley’s production — receptions, yards, touchdowns — as a percentage of his team’s total production. (I’m not sure who first began using market share to measure production, but I discovered the concept through Jim Cobern.) By measuring production as percentages, market share allows us to account for differences in offensive style (the run-first offense of Alabama versus Oklahoma State’s air raid, in this case) and quality of opponent in order to compare players at the same position more effectively.
Ridley’s 52 receptions are solid but unspectacular until you consider that Alabama’s next closest receiver is Cam Sims with thirteen catches. Ridley is responsible for 32.9% of his team’s receptions and 37% of its passing yards. Washington, by contrast, is responsible for only 22.4% of Oklahoma State’s receptions and 31.3% of its passing yards. I’d therefore argue that Ridley’s production is actually more impressive than Washington’s.
In today’s film breakdown, we’ll see how Ridley manages to put up those kinds of numbers, what makes Ridley so dangerous, and how he provides his young quarterback Jalen Hurts with a reliable passing option week in and week out. Let’s take a look.
The 6'1", 190 lb Ridley uses great speed and rapid acceleration to gain an initial advantage over defenders. Combine those physical tools with quick feet, crisp footwork, and polished route-running, and you’ve got a man born to create separation. Ridley has improved these traits and refined his technique over his three seasons in Tuscaloosa — he’s as close to a finished product as you’ll find in college football and the most NFL-ready prospect of the 2018 wide receiver class.
Watch how Ridley explodes out of his stance at the line-of-scrimmage, accelerating to his top speed and instantly eating up the cushion that LSU CB and fellow NFL draft prospect Kevin Toliver II gives him. Toliver expects an inside-breaking route on this play and points his hips accordingly. Ridley, for his part, sprints straight at Toliver, giving no indication of which direction he’ll break toward. Only after reaching Toliver does he plant his left foot and break to the outside while maintaining his speed, forcing Toliver to flip his hips and change direction to pursue. The cut could be a bit sharper, but Ridley is nonetheless able to create ample separation thanks to his quickness and technique during the stem portion of the route. What’s more, Ridley is not only an athletic route runner but also a smart and creative one. He excels at reading his defender and using his positioning against him. In the above GIF, he sees Toliver’s hip facing inside and knows that the 6'3" cornerback won’t be able to flip his hips and accelerate fast enough to keep up with him on an out-breaking route, so he attacks accordingly.
Ridley excels at manipulating defenders thanks to his speed, footwork, and sense of timing. Whether by double-moves or single cuts, he is adept at getting them to flip their hips one way and then cutting in the other direction.
(This is the same play from two different camera angles. #3 Ridley is lined up near the far hash in the first GIF and enters from the left in the second.) In the first GIF, watch how Ridley starts by sprinting off the LOS toward the middle of the field. As soon as Ridley sees freshman DB Hamsah Nasirildeen (#23) start to point his hips inside, he cuts to the outside while maintaining his sprint, forcing his defender to flip his hips and pursue. In the second GIF, Ridley finishes him off by cutting outside and heading for the sideline. Nasirildeen, who is already behind and is on Ridley’s inside hip, doesn’t stand a chance.
In addition to his prowess before the catch, Ridley demonstrates aptitude during the catch. He’s a hands catcher comfortable with reaching away from his body to snatch the ball, expanding his catch radius if necessary — he has to be if he’s gonna catch 52 passes from the rather erratic Hurts.
While nobody would call Ridley a bruiser, he has the strength and concentration to secure the ball through contact. He also has good aerial balance and agility. He has demonstrated the ability to make mid-air catches while adjusting his body and secure the ball with his feet in-bounds.
This pass is ultimately an incomplete pass, but it’s a great play by Ridley that shows off several of his impressive athletic traits. Ridley reacts to the short pass, jumping and twisting in mid-air to spin his body around and bring the ball in with his hands while also turning his back to the defender to brace for impact. He begins positioning his feet before he’s even caught the ball, trying to keep them in play and pointing them toward the turf to touch down as soon as possible. He would have succeeded, too, had it not been for a great play by Florida State DB A.J. Westbrook, who pushes Ridley out of bounds just before he can get his feet in.
But Ridley’s not just some possession receiver — he’s a great deep threat capable of either beating his man downfield with speed and footwork or of identifying a hole in zone coverage and knifing into it. His speed and open-field cutting makes him a terrific yards-after-catch threat, as well.
Mississippi State deploys a Cover 2 blitz on this play with the cornerbacks and linebackers playing shallow zone and the two safeties splitting the field deep. The blitzing linebacker removes a man from the Bulldogs’ coverage, and Alabama’s out-breaking shallow routes attract the rest of the short zone coverage, leaving a hole in the middle. Ridley (right side of screen) sees the gap and cuts toward the hole as soon as the strong-side cornerback passes him off to safety Mark McLaurin. McLaurin sees this action and sprints to close the space, but not before Ridley receives the pass. One ridiculous juke move on the over-committing safety, and Ridley is free.
Ridley lacks the strength to out-muscle defenders before and after the catch. Primarily Alabama’s Z-receiver, Ridley does not have experience fighting through jams at the LOS. Bigger, stronger cornerbacks will attempt to counter his speed by stopping his momentum at the LOS, and it is unclear how well Ridley will be able to deal with such tactics. The team that drafts him may want to try him out at the X-receiver spot, but the evidence we currently have suggests that he will be most comfortable and most likely to succeed at the Z.
After the catch, Ridley has trouble fighting through tackles for extra yards when necessary — he is better at going around defenders, not through them.
Alabama goes to its best playmaker on 3rd and 7 on this play, but Ridley is stopped short of the sticks by Nasirildeen. To his credit, Ridley is not afraid of contact — he tries to put his shoulder down and barrel through the tackle. But his lack of ideal size and strength shows on this play as his momentum gets stopped completely by the bigger, stronger defensive back.
Ridley is also a sub-optimal run blocker. The Z-receiver lines up on the strong side of the offensive formation and is therefore often responsible for blocking in the running game. Ridley has plenty of experience as a run blocker (PFF actually rates him pretty positively at it), but he’ll often fail to hold his block and let his assignment make a play on the ball-carrier.
Ridley (bottom of screen) is tasked on this play with blocking CB Tarvarus McFadden. Ridley tries to extend his arms and engage McFadden, but McFadden uses his superior reach and strength to move Ridley aside and proceeds to make the tackle on RB Damien Harris.
Lastly, Ridley is an older prospect and is therefore less projectable — he’ll be 24 by the end of his rookie season. Alabama’s prospects have a bit of a reputation of coming out fully cooked, and that’s probably fair in Ridley’s case. A fully grown 23-year-old prospect has less potential than a 21-year-old kid, especially if that kid is putting up similar numbers. Ridley is the most NFL-ready WR talent in the draft, but he should be if he’s also one of the oldest. He’s a polished route runner and all-around solid player, but a younger prospect could theoretically learn those skills as well by the time he’s Ridley’s age. Sure, Ridley is a safer (high floor) player, but that means he also has less potential and a lower ceiling. Low risk, low reward. What you see is what you’re gonna get.
Calvin Ridley presents an interesting choice to NFL teams. If a team wants an NFL-ready talent who can contribute instantly to the success of the team, then Ridley is probably their guy. A good team lacking in offensive talent like the Baltimore Ravens, for instance, might fit the bill. Most teams, however, tend to prefer high-potential players in the draft, especially if it’s with a first-round pick. Another thing that I’ll be interested in seeing is whether or not teams properly appreciate Ridley’s production. As mentioned earlier, Ridley’s raw numbers are a bit unspectacular, but his market share is elite. Will teams properly appreciate that? Or will they opt for the raw numbers of James Washington, Michael Gallup, or Courtland Sutton?
Regardless, Ridley is an attractive option due to his athletic tools, deep-ball threat, and ability to help his quarterback by creating separation and hauling in inaccurate passes. Even if he’s a Day 2 pick, the team that grabs him is going to have high hopes for him as an immediate contributor to their passing game. And while that might be easier said than done for any college player entering the NFL as a rookie, Ridley is more well-equipped than most to meet those expectations.