The Atlanta Falcons could be the NFC South favorites in 2022, but without receiver Calvin Ridley, they take a potentially significant blow.
With Tom Brady retiring, and Sean Payton stepping away, the NFC South is there for the Atlanta Falcons.
However, with Atlanta still digging out of old cap issues and an uncertain future for one of its best players, a chance to rise up the standings remains only that: a chance.
To that end, star receiver Calvin Ridley, who stepped away from the team after five games of the 2021 season to focus on his mental health, remains an unknown for Atlanta.
Ridley, 27, is entering the final year of his rookie deal but hasn’t commented about the vision he has for the future. On Wednesday, Falcons owner Arthur Blank spoke about his admiration for the former first-round pick, but also noted the team will need clarity soon. Per Michael Rothstein of ESPN:
“I will tell you what I know. What I know is that we’d love to have the young man back to play for us. But, you know, where that sits with him, I don’t know. We haven’t talked to him directly, and at some point, with free agency coming up upon us and draft after that, we have to have a clearer understanding about that and I think he and his agents certainly understand that as well.”
After a pair of solid seasons in 2018 and ’19, Ridley exploded onto the scene in 2020, establishing himself as Atlanta’s top weapon despite the continued presence of future Hall of Famer receiver Julio Jones. Ridley caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine scores, before having 281 yards and a pair of scores in an abbreviated 2021.
If the Falcons trade Ridley before the start of the new league year on March 16, he should fetch a decent return. While a first-round choice is likely out of the question considering his new team also needs to pay him, a Day 2 pick and perhaps a late-round choice isn’t unreasonable.
However, should Ridley return to the Falcons, he forms a nice tandem with second-year tight end Kyle Pitts. Atlanta, which is looking at being $6.6 million over the salary cap, desperately needs to find pieces in the draft while retaining its young talent. If Ridley leaves, there will be more draft picks but suddenly the receiving corps is among the worst in football.
The NFC South is open for the Falcons, but much of their fate rests on Ridley.