News & Analysis

Julio Jones is a roadblock for the Calvin Ridley fantasy football hype train

The Calvin Ridley hype train is all gas and no brakes. His average draft position has skyrocketed into the fourth round and climbs higher with each passing day. Ridley is an ascending and immensely talented player, but a top-15 WR price tag overlooks the elephant in the room — Julio Jones caps Ridley’s fantasy ceiling.

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Jones is the NFL’s premier target hog, seeing a league-high 932 targets since 2014. Assuming Jones gets his usual 150 targets as Atlanta’s No. 1 option, how much meat will be left on the bone for Calvin Ridley to break out into an elite fantasy wide receiver in 2020?

Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley rarely produce together

Calvin Ridley has 91 targets in each of the past two seasons and should blow past that number in 2020 based on PFF projections — he was on pace for 112 targets last year before his season-ending injury. However, consistent weekly volume was a major problem for Ridley. He had six or fewer targets in seven of his 13 games last year and cracked 10 targets only three times. Compare that to Julio Jones, who had at least eight targets in a whopping 13 games.

In Ridley’s three games with at least 10 targets, Jones had target counts of nine, eight and zero (he was dealing with an injury for two of them). Simultaneous production was a real problem, as each scored at least 15 PPR fantasy points in the same game just three times.

Fantasy owners witnessed the pinnacle of mutual exclusion with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans in 2019, but a key difference was that Evans operated outside while Godwin manned the slot. That is not the case with Jones and Ridley, who are both outside wide receivers with similar average depths of target — 12.3 and 13.9 yards, respectively.

Jones lined up as an outside wide receiver on 80% of snaps and rotated between the alignment’s left and right side (47% LWR versus 42% RWR). Ridley lined up as an outside right wide receiver on 54% of snaps, where he had 54 targets (fourth-most in the NFL) and accumulated 60% of his receiving yards. Ridley has higher usage from the right side of the formation, but Jones eats into nearly half of his most productive snaps.

Comparable outside wide receiver duos since 2010

High-powered offenses typically boast multiple top receiving options, but teams having two elite outside wide receivers is less common than you probably think. Since 2010, there have been only 15 teams that had two outside wideouts (more than 50% of snaps aligned wide) record PPR top-24 fantasy finishes.

It is even rarer for an offense to support two top-24 outside wide receivers when one of them is a superstar like Julio Jones. The list shrinks to 10 when one had a top-10 wide receiver finish:

Team WR1 WR2
Dallas Cowboys (2019) Amari Cooper (WR10) Michael Gallup (WR22)
Green Bay Packers (2016) Jordy Nelson (WR2) Davante Adams (WR9)
New Orleans Saints (2016) Michael Thomas (WR7) Brandin Cooks (WR10)
Atlanta Falcons (2014) Julio Jones (WR6) Roddy White (WR21)
Denver Broncos (2014) Demaryius Thomas (WR2) Emmanuel Sanders (WR5)
Chicago Bears (2013) Brandon Marshall (WR5) Alshon Jeffery (WR8)
Denver Broncos (2013) Demaryius Thomas (WR1) Eric Decker (WR9)
Denver Broncos (2012) Demaryius Thomas (WR6) Eric Decker (WR8)
Atlanta Falcons (2012) Roddy White (WR9) Julio Jones (WR11)
Pittsburgh Steelers (2011) Mike Wallace (WR9) Antonio Brown (WR24)

The template exists for Jones and Ridley to both achieve WR1 status, but it has been exceedingly rare over the last decade. At least the most similar examples are encouraging in that the No. 2 option was also a young breakout stud — Davante Adams (Year 3), Michael Thomas (rookie), Alshon Jeffery (Year 2), and Julio Jones (rookie).

Atlanta’s vacated targets will not filter exclusively to Calvin Ridley

Ridley truthers discount the Julio dilemma and remain convinced of a breakout because the departures of Austin Hooper, Mohamed Sanu Sr., and Devonta Freeman create 197 unaccounted targets from Atlanta's 2019 offense. Hooper's exit is particularly enticing because he had one of the league’s most valuable red-zone roles, generating 16 targets (15th-most among all NFL players) and reeling in six touchdowns (seventh) last season.

Interestingly, Ridley’s career red-zone receiving stats have already been hyper-efficient and do not leave much room for improvement. Check out the Falcons' red-zone receiving data since 2018:

Player Red-Zone Targets Red-Zone TDs
Calvin Ridley 16 10
Julio Jones 30 10
Austin Hooper 31 10

Despite having half the targets of Julio Jones and Austin Hooper, Ridley has matched them in touchdowns. Even if he experiences a target increase, his touchdown efficiency is likely to regress.

Additionally, the Falcons surrendered a second-round pick to acquire Hayden Hurst from the Baltimore Ravens, which is significant draft capital for a player with just 59 career targets. Hurst is a burly 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end and is likely ticketed for a substantial red-zone role. Atlanta also brought running back Todd Gurley II into the fold, and he is no stranger to the red zone. Gurley had an astounding 161 red-zone touches over the past three seasons, 39 more than anyone else in the NFL.

Russell Gage was the primary beneficiary of Sanu’s departure last season, sliding right into the slot with 61 targets from Week 8 on. Ridley has minimal slot experience, hauling in only 25 catches for 225 yards over his career from that role. Only four of those slot grabs occurred after the Falcons dealt Sanu, making Ridley unlikely to see a sizeable uptick in slot usage this season.

Ridley has an uphill climb to hit WR1 value

Calvin Ridley is a strong candidate for the famous third-year wide receiver breakout, but a No. 2 receiving role behind Julio Jones will likely limit his fantasy role to a WR2 despite having a WR1 price tag.

PFF’s projections rank Ridley as the No. 23 wide receiver with a conservative 74-972-5 receiving line on 112 targets. Ridley will need either a major target spike or extreme efficiency to smash his inflated ADP.

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