NFL News & Analysis

Atlanta Falcons' Calvin Ridley-Kyle Pitts tandem can exceed expectations in 2021 with no Julio Jones

Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) runs against Chicago Bears linebacker Barkevious Mingo (50) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Jones is officially a member of the Tennessee Titans. The Atlanta Falcons traded their longtime wideout for a haul of draft picks, ending Jones' illustrious 10-year career with the team but also leaving a sizable void in the team's receiver room.

While there's no replacing a future Hall of Fame wide receiver overnight, two of the Falcons' young stars — Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts — are reasons to believe that not all hope is lost for Atlanta in the post-Jones era.

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Atlanta’s new No. 1 wide receiver has about as much momentum heading into next season as any other player. Ridley is fresh off a 2020 breakout campaign in which he led the league in 100-yard receiving games (8) and 20-plus yard receptions (16) while also posting a career-high 1,374 yards. 

Life without Jones shouldn’t be such a foreign concept for Ridley. He was forced to take over WR1 duties in seven of his 15 starts last season — even putting up some of his best performances in those outings.

Without Julio Jones (7 games) With Jones (8 games)
74 targets 63 targets
50 receptions 40 receptions
765 yards 609 yards
2.84 yards per route run 2.08 yards per route run
28% target rate 22% target rate

Now with Jones gone, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ridley cemented himself as a top-10 wide receiver in the NFL next season. According to PFF’s fantasy projections tool, Ridley is forecasted to lead the NFL in receiving yards (1,562) and put up career-highs in receptions (100) and targets (151).

Jones’ departure tasks Atlanta with filling one of the largest workloads among NFL wide receivers. Since 2012, he has received over 145 targets in seven seasons — the most among all players. While seeing a barrage of targets each year, Jones also turned in some of the more efficient campaigns among wideouts. 

The two-time first-team All-Pro has ranked first among wide receivers in yards per route run in five of the past eight years, also putting together the most seasons as PFF’s highest-graded pass catcher (3).

Atlanta is sure to miss Jones’ ability to take the top off a defense. Since Jones entered the NFL, no one has more 20-plus-yard receptions (113) or receiving yards (3,745) than him.

Ridley has shown capable of stretching the field vertically, too. Since 2019, he ranks first among receivers with 67 receptions gaining 15-plus yards — followed closely by Jones' 63. 

But even if the Falcons look through rose-colored glasses, it’s unlikely Ridley can fill Jones’ Hall of Fame-sized shoes by himself.

In steps Atlanta’s potential saving grace and new No. 2 pass catcher: Kyle Pitts.

The Florida product recorded the highest PFF grade (96.1) by a pass catcher in the PFF College era en route to being selected as the first non-quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft

The rookie wide receiver-tight end hybrid was practically built in a lab. Pitts is listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, featuring the longest wingspan of any receiver or tight end prospect over the past 20 years (83 ⅜ inches). 

Oh, and he runs a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash…

Pitts’ unique size and athleticism put him in a perfect position to contribute immediately all over the football field. In fact, new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith has stated that Pitts won’t be pigeonholed into a typical tight end role. 

The opportunity to play multiple positions out of the gate allows Pitts to take advantage of mismatches in the secondary, just like he was able to do at Florida. He recorded a 92.8 PFF grade when lining up as a wide receiver against a cornerback in 2020.

And that includes torching Jacksonville Jaguars second-round pick Tyson Campbell one on one… 

If there is one part of Julio Jones’ game to nitpick, it's his inability to consistently find paydirt. He has eclipsed double-digit scores just once in his career and ranks tied for 37th in red-zone touchdown receptions since 2013 (22). 

Pitts excels in such situations, though, and Jones’ absence just gives him more of an opportunity to jump right in and be another scoring threat alongside Ridley. 

During his tenure at Florida, the former four-star recruit never dropped a pass in the red zone (31 targets). He also put up the highest red-zone receiving grade (91.3) in college football last season.

It is not out of the ordinary for rookie tight ends to struggle as they transition to the NFL. But Pitts is not a normal tight end. He is a certified playmaker with the football in his hands.

Currently, he is projected to have 75 catches, 842 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021, but it wouldn’t be surprising if quarterback Matt Ryan targets him early and often next season, leading to a historic rookie campaign among tight ends.

Atlanta's offense will undergo even more change under new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Few coaches would be able to keep an offense afloat after arguably the greatest wide receiver of this generation departs, but Smith is one of the best play callers in the NFL and should help Ridley and Pitts fill Jones' void.

During Smith's stint with the Titans, his offense ranked as the fourth-best unit, according to expected points added (EPA) per play, while propping up both A.J Brown and Corey Davis to top-10 PFF grades among wide receivers in 2020. 

Atlanta will no doubt still miss Jones’ presence, but don’t count out the team to enjoy one last ride with Ryan at quarterback, led by the league’s newest dynamic duo of Ridley and Pitts. 


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