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The summer of Calvin Ridley: Why the Jaguars’ new receiver is primed for a comeback

“This dude’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen live in a practice,” Jaguar Report’s John Shipley said in a podcast

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Jacksonville Jaguars Offseason Workout Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

After consecutive offseasons that could’ve been dubbed “most monumental in franchise history,” the Jaguars kicked their legs back this spring.

Jacksonville spent less money on free agents than any team besides the Rams. Its most expensive players added since March are first-round pick Anton Harrison ($2.4 million) and kicker Brandon McManus ($2 million). Those respective 2023 cap hits rank 24th and 27th on the roster.

General manager Trent Baalke said in February, “The last two years, we’ve delved heavily into free agency, and we’re at the point now where it’s draft and develop.”

Though they wound up with a franchise-record 13 draft picks, the 2023 Jaguars will heavily rely on players acquired in ‘21 and ‘22 offseasons. Lawrence, Etienne, Scherff, Little, Kirk, Engram, Campbell, Oluokun, Walker, Lloyd, Jenkins, Cisco -- the list goes on.

Most of these second- and third-year Jaguars will need to make another jump for the team to chase its first Super Bowl appearance. But while there haven’t been many exciting recent transactions, there is one new player who could alter the fate of the franchise.

He wears No. 0.

Jacksonville Jaguars Offseason Workout Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Calvin Ridley began playing football when he was eight years old with a team called the Fort Lauderdale Jaguars. Though he initially played running back, Ridley developed into one of the best wideouts in the game.

In 2014 he signed with Alabama as the nation’s top-ranked receiver prospect. Ridley led the SEC in catches as a freshman, and as a junior in a loaded receiver room, he nearly quadrupled the number of catches of any of his teammates. He earned an All-SEC selection and won a national championship each season.

Ridley explained why he chose the Tide in a 2018 interview with Campus Lore.

I called my mom, and I told her I wanted to commit. And she was like, ‘That’s Alabama, that’s far... Miami’s right here.’ And I was like, ‘You know, it’s gonna be better for me to win championships, I want to be a champion.’

The Broward County native was selected 26th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Future Hall-of-Famer Julio Jones took Ridley under his wing, and the pair of Falcons quickly became a dynamic receiving duo.

Ridley recorded over 60 catches and 800 yards in each of his first two seasons before ascending as the NFL’s newest superstar receiver in 2020. He finished the year fifth in yards (1374) and eighth in scores (9) among all receivers and was named a second-team All-Pro.

Following a 7-catch, 109-yard, 2-touchdown performance in Week 2, Ridley was asked post-game about his mindset heading into the season.

Super Bowl. My mindset is help the team... whatever I can do for the win. I just wanna win games and put the team into position to go to the Super Bowl and playoffs, and if that’s me catching two, three touchdowns a game, that’s what I’ll do.

Ridley was due for another strong campaign in 2021, but his career changed course on the night of the season opener. Ridley and his wife’s home was robbed during the game. She was traumatized, and his anxiety (which had developed from playing through a misdiagnosed foot injury) spiked.

It eventually caused him to miss Atlanta’s Week 5 game in London, and ultimately, the remainder of the season.

In his time of darkness, while he was on the non-football injury list in November, Ridley placed a bet on the Falcons to root for his boys.

Four months later, the NFL suspended him indefinitely through the 2022 season.

Eight months after that, Ridley was a Jaguar.

Jacksonville Jaguars Offseason Workout Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Jacksonville’s front office made its shrewdest move in recent history by acquiring Ridley last trade deadline. Conditional Day 2 draft picks for a former All-Pro, no matter the asterisks attached, isn’t a bad deal (especially considering the massive shift in the wide receiver market spurred partly by Christian Kirk).

Ridley has proved that claim right as much as he can without yet having played a game at Everbank Stadium.

In March, he was reinstated by the league and penned an emotional letter to the game in The Players’ Tribune to recount his story, apologize for his mistake, and promise a comeback.

Right now, I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt — mentally and physically. On the field, I’m flying. Believe me, I’m flying. That GPS band don’t lie. On my daughter’s name, if I’m healthy? With Trevor Lawrence? I’m giving Jacksonville 1,400 yards a season, period.

...Football saved my life. It’s still my purpose. I still love it, maybe now more than ever.

...I know I have a debt to pay back to the game. But when y’all talk about the name Calvin Ridley in 10, 20, 30 years, I’m gonna make sure it rings out for the right reasons.

Bucky Brooks of Jaguars Media had a sit-down interview with Ridley that was released on the same day.

First of all, a year away from the NFL puts a lot of things in perspective for a young man like me. A year away from the game and coming back now, it shows me that I missed the game more than ever and that I love football more than ever. Football was something that I do and love and always will be what I love.

...I went to Alabama, was part of a winning culture there. I know Atlanta is a winning culture, too, but we had a rough couple years, but I know Coach Doug has the formula to win. I want to be a part of that, and that’s what it’s about, that’s why we work hard, to win those games and be in those important games. I want to be in important games.

...I’m ready to get out there. It’s all I can do. I don’t really like to talk too much about it, I just want to play.

The next month, Ridley chose a badass jersey number that riled up the fanbase and nailed his first impression with local media.

During that first Jaguars media availability, Ridley’s eagerness to return to the field continued to stand out.

For me, personally, [the letter to the game] was more of a way to get it out and say, ‘Alright y’all, I love football.’

...I’ve not only been good, but I’ve worked to be good. They say two years off, but what about the healing process that I got with the time off? What if I got faster? What if I got stronger? Obviously, I got wiser, so why can’t I be better?

...I used the whole suspension to get myself, in every category, back to Calvin Ridley.

...I know what I can do. What I meant by that, is this: I am a 1,400-yard type of player. Guys are going to determine what type of stats I am going to have. Football is not just – football is serious. You don’t just play 17 games straight and think you’re going to be in every one of them and playing healthy in all of them. What I’m saying is that I am a 1,400-yard receiver with a broken foot. That’s what I’m saying. I know that I can make the plays and I know that I’m one of the better receivers in this league, that’s what I’m saying.

The same week, Jacksonville’s established leaders shared their own early impressions of Ridley.

Trevor Lawrence:

He’s been awesome. He’s hungry. He’s excited to be here. He’s got the right attitude. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve noticed, then on the field, he’s a freak, just the way he runs routes, how explosive he is. He has great hands, seems like he’s picking stuff up. Obviously, we just started, but it seems like he’s picking it up pretty quickly... It’s going really well. He seems super hungry and ready to go.

Foye Oluokun:

First, he’s a good dude. Very respectful dude, I heard him talking about that, but he respects the game for sure. He’s going to come in and he puts that work in. Even with all the talent he has, he’s a hard worker. He came in and even during OTA’s he looked ready to go. I talked to some people running routes with him and they say he looked ready to go.

Doug Pederson:

It’s just exciting, he’s fired up. He’s excited to be here; we’re excited to have him. He’s been working with Trevor obviously, and the guys spent some time together. It’s just another piece; it’s another piece to our puzzle and a huge piece that can help us head in the right direction of where we want to go and all of that. We’re just excited.

Mind you, all that excitement came before the team’s offseason workouts began. Six-time Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams also added to the hype in May:

If you could really see Calvin really go to work, the way that I see him, the way I watch his tape, the way that a lot of the guys that I know that know the position well watch his tape... he’s gonna be back this year and I think that he’s going to have a really really good year.

And as a receiver, as you know, we don’t control everything, so we control our tape. Watch the boy’s tape. He’s out there doing stuff to people consistently with the routes, he don’t give nobody a break.

Ridley was eased into offseason workouts due to how much time he’s spent away from the sport. It’s fair to assume he won’t immediately readjust to the physicality of the league, but it’s also clear the Jaguars are closely monitoring his pace.

Pederson explained during Organized Team Activities (OTAs) that they’ve had to ‘pump the breaks’ on Ridley.

He hasn’t played in a while plus the injury, so we’re just trying to be careful with him. He’s done an outstanding job for us. We just wanna make sure that he’s- he’s the type of guy that you have to pump the brakes with. He wants to go so much and so fast and so hard out there at practice that we just have to pump the brakes and just tell him, ‘Hey, now’s not the time.’ But he’s doing a great job, he’s picking up the offense well.

A few days later, Pederson called in to The Rich Eisen Show and expressed the same sentiment.

He’s chomping [at the bit] so much and so bad- he wants to get to the regular season. And we’re like ‘Woah, pump the breaks, let’s get through this offseason program’ but he’s been a great addition... just a kid that really is hungry to play football again.

When asked if he felt rejuvenated during OTAs, Ridley said:

Yeah, I was at home for a year, I’m juiced up, I’d rather be out there. But like I said, thank God I’m around a bunch of good people, a good program, and they know how to do this, because you let me do it myself I’ll tire myself out by the time the season’s here. I got a lot of good people here I’ve been working out with, a lot of good strength staff, and I’m excited about where I’m at right now.

Even being held back in padless practices, it was still easy to appreciate Ridley’s athleticism.

Ridley turned heads of not just media members, but his teammates and coaches as well.

Offensive coordinator Press Taylor gushed at the start of OTAs:

I’ve been really impressed with Calvin. I’ve watched every snap Calvin’s played in the NFL, just like a lot of our guys have. So we’re very confident in the player we’re getting.

And then to be able to meet him in person, we’ve had a lot of people that vouched for him, obviously going back to when we acquired him, but the work he’s put in this offseason has been impressive just in terms of meeting the extra work he does.

After practice one day, Christian Kirk said to the Times Union’s Juston Lewis:

He’s been working his butt off and doing the extra things to learn the offense and get acclimated to what we’re doing, but he fits right in with the culture and all the things we’re trying to do here.

When asked about the type of addition Ridley can be for the team, Rayshawn Jenkins responded to 1010XL’s Hays Carlyon:

Oh, crazy, man. I would like for you guys [in the media] to see him in training camp, man, because we’ve seen him out here really running at full speed and it looks- it just looks different.

In a more recent interview with talkSPORT, Jamal Agnew raved (and Mo Sanu seconded):

Just the way he moves, you can see- his route running, he can run, catch anything you throw to him, he’s just different, man. You just watch him out there, he’s a mismatch nightmare. In my opinion I don’t think anybody can guard him in the league.

Jaguar Report’s John Shipley revealed on our latest podcast:

I’ve had several Jaguars players tell me, ‘This dude’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen live in a practice.’

Carlyon asked a few players after OTA practices what their plans were during a three-week break before training camp. When he cheerfully asked Ridley, “Do you have any fun coming up?” Ridley answered, “No, I don’t... I’m locked in, I’m here, I’m just gonna be training.”

Sure enough, Ridley popped up on a social media post showing him hit nearly 19 MPH on a treadmill as he worked out alongside Deebo Samuel in July. Not long after, Ridley posted videos of himself, Kirk, and Lawrence working out at Kirk’s high school in Arizona.

Jacksonville Jaguars Offseason Workout Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Ridley is surely ready to leave the past behind him, so what can we expect from Jacksonville’s newest playmaker in the future?

At every stop on his football journey -- Alabama, Atlanta, Jacksonville -- Ridley has made it clear that his goal is to win as a team. But as evidenced by the stack of testimonials above, it’s hard not to get excited about the individual.

Any conversation about Ridley on the field has to start with his route running. He was coached at Alabama by then-assistant wide receivers coach Keary Colbert, who told in 2021 that Ridley is one of the most gifted receivers he has ever seen.

To this day, I still show his routes to my receivers that I’m coaching. For young receivers, he’s a dude you definitely want to watch and study. He had an ability to really sell his route, then all of a sudden stick his foot in the ground and make a defensive back go in the opposite direction.

Specifically, Ridley has mastered the art of selling routes vertically. Ben Solak wrote about Ridley prior to the 2020 season for The Draft Network:

There’s an old adage in route running that goes “everything is a fade, until it’s not.”

The spirit here is that outside receivers should always initially stem as if they’re working to a deep nine ball pattern, to force the corner to respect the threat of the most dangerous route first. Then, once that threat is established, the receiver can break off into his tree of routes with an advantage over the cornerback.

As Solak put it, “Ridley isn’t necessarily a home run threat as a deep route-runner because his straight-line speed is only good, not amazing, but in the intermediate areas of the field, few are better at creating space.” And he was right.

Ridley went on to have his Year 3 breakout campaign with the majority of his production coming off those intermediate plays. According to Sports Info Solutions, he led the league in targets (58), catches (38), and yards (687) on passes between 10-20 air yards in 2020. Ridley led all wide receivers in yards on outs (222), corners (161), and comebacks (108), all of which are routes that occur near the sideline.

Trevor Lawrence led the league in touchdowns when targeting those route types in 2022.

Believe you me: Ridley is in Jacksonville for a reason. Back in March, when Bucky Brooks asked what excites him most about Lawrence, Ridley replied, “His ability. He’s a great quarterback, young, smart, got an arm... He has the arm strength to reach me, and I can get open on a lot of different guys.”

Though the former first-overall pick can flick it deep as well as anyone, Lawrence grew into one of the league’s best quick-game passers in his first season with Doug Pederson.

The numbers below are from true dropback passes (not including RPO, screen, or play action passes).

Downfield passing

2022 Lawrence Attempts Catchable throw % Completion % Yards/attempt Passer rating EPA/attempt Success rate
2022 Lawrence Attempts Catchable throw % Completion % Yards/attempt Passer rating EPA/attempt Success rate
9 air yards or less 237 (9th) 91.8% (9th) 75.1% (7th) 5.6 (20th) 99.9 (7th) .096 (8th) 55.3% (7th)
10 air yards or more 143 (1st) 68.8% (20th) 47.6% (15th) 8.7 (28th) 84.3 (13th) .257 (13th) 46.9% (15th)
Among 35 qualifying quarterbacks per SIS

His ‘time to throw’ stats paint a similar picture. Only Tom Brady and Joe Burrow had a quicker release on average than Lawrence last year.

Time to throw

2022 Lawrence Attempts % of dropbacks Adjusted comp. % Yards/attempt Passer rating Big time throw % TO worthy throw %
2022 Lawrence Attempts % of dropbacks Adjusted comp. % Yards/attempt Passer rating Big time throw % TO worthy throw %
Throws under 2.5 secs 398 (3rd) 55.2% (3rd) 83.8% (6th) 6.7 (10th) 101.8 (12th) 3.4% (4th) 1.4% (11th)
Throws over 2.5 secs 269 (10th) 44.1% (38th) 64.3% (34th) 7.3 (28th) 79.2 (26th) 7.3% (11th) 4.9% (24th)
Among 40 qualifying quarterbacks per PFF

As NFL defenses are playing more two-high safety coverages to combat explosive passing offenses, quarterbacks across the league have gotten credit for taking more layups.

In the past year, Joe Burrow took far fewer sacks without sacrificing any production; Patrick Mahomes had his best career season by becoming more boring; and even the rollercoaster that is Josh Allen learned to take what the defense was giving him.

Why Lawrence didn’t get his own shoutout in The Ringer is a mystery. His improvement from his first NFL season to his second was historic: he had the largest increase in passer rating in league history (+23.3) as his touchdown to interception ratio spiked from 12:17 to 25:8 -- and he was able to cut down on negative plays without just turning into Checkdown Charlie. Lawrence actually ranked first in checkdown rate in 2021 and last in 2022.

With just a single season of Pederson’s coaching, Lawrence became a force around the rim, finishing both schemed-up alley-oops as well as high-difficulty shots in the paint. Now, with Ridley in the fold, Lawrence can start launching from behind the arc more often and with more success.

As we’ve seen in previous years, up-and-coming passers typically see massive improvements when an alpha receiver comes to town.

  • Josh Allen improved his passer rating by 21.9 after the Bills traded for Stefon Diggs in 2020.
  • Joe Burrow improved his by 18.5 after the Bengals drafted Ja’Marr Chase in 2021.
  • Jalen Hurts improved his by 14.3 after the Eagles traded for A.J. Brown in 2022.
  • Tua Tagovailoa improved his by 15.4 after the Dolphins traded for Tyreek Hill in 2022.

Lawrence already improved more than any other quarterback in history, at least in terms of passer rating, and now he’ll play with Ridley, who’s been better at getting open than all but seven players since entering the league. And have I mentioned how teammates, coaches, reporters, and fellow NFL receivers have been talking about him this summer?

Jacksonville Jaguars Offseason Workout Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Two decades after starting his football journey with the Fort Lauderdale Jaguars, Ridley is beginning again in Jacksonville. He’s looking to re-prove himself as one of the best players in the very game he described as his purpose. And he has the quarterback to do so.

Jaguars fans... get ready to kick your legs back.