FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Sure, the 75-yard-catch-and-run touchdown against the rival New Orleans Saints last Sunday was special. So was becoming the first rookie in Atlanta Falcons franchise history to catch three touchdown passes in a game.
But for Calvin Ridley, the signature moment of his rookie season might have occurred months ago and had nothing to do with reaching the end zone. It was a touchdown of a different sort.
Ridley headed home to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during a break and called his mother, Kassna Daniels, upon landing. He could feel the excitement in his mother’s tone as she just picked up the Cadillac Escalade he promised to buy for her, along with a house, after Calvin was drafted 26th overall.
“I was real happy because she was real happy,” Ridley said. “That’s the goal: Give your mom the things she wants in life. She worked hard all of her life. It’s time for me to pay her. Now’s she looking for that house.”
Falcons rookie receiver Calvin Ridley is tied with A.J. Green in touchdown catches with four through three weeks. Mark Humphrey/AP Photo
Ridley, who signed a four-year, $10.9 million contract with $9.9 million guaranteed, might be able to afford to buy his mother her own island if he continues to perform at a high level for years to come. His Week 3 outing against the Saints, which included seven catches for 146 yards to go with the trio of scores — not to mention a cameo as a running back — put the rest of the league on high notice, as if having to defend Julio Jones wasn’t enough for opposing coaches to worry about.
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“Calvin was an outstanding prospect; watched him since he was a freshman at Alabama,” said Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who has the task of slowing down Ridley on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). “The game he had is not surprising. I just think he has the explosive speed. He has the catch range. He has the feel of a receiver. He’s a very gifted young player, understanding how to use his body and play receiver. And it transfers well to the NFL.”
Ridley, a nominee for NFL Rookie of the Week, enters his fourth game with four touchdown receptions, tied for the league-lead alongside Bengals veteran A.J. Green. He has 11 receptions for 210 yards on 17 targets with 10 first downs and 82 yards after the catch — all after going without a catch on two targets in a season-opening loss at Philadelphia.
Pro Football Focus ranks Ridley as its top-rated rookie receiver, ahead of Carolina’s DJ Moore and Arizona’s Christian Kirk. Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian constantly raves about Ridley’s double moves, a tribute to just how great a route-runner Ridley truly is. And Falcons coach Dan Quinn was quick to point out that Ridley’s success has to do with his unique skill level and not just about “13” defenders swarming Jones and leaving Ridley open.
Equally impressive is how Ridley quickly earned the respect of his teammates.
“He creates unbelievable separation,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “His acceleration out of cuts is really good. His patience for a young receiver versus man-to-man coverage, knowing how to win and the timing of the play, all of that stuff usually takes a lot of time to learn. He just does it very naturally. … I think that’s been the reason for this early success: He’s been able to beat man-to-man coverage very well.”
It doesn’t hurt to have a relentless work ethic.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
Everyone could hear the Jugs machine echoing in the background for a good 10 minutes following Wednesday’s practice before the pouring rain came. To no one’s surprise, it was Ridley getting in extra work, just like he did before practice started.
Part of Ridley’s Jugs routine is standing right in front of the six-speed machine and catching the ball as it is ejected, at speeds up to 75 miles per hour. It was something Ridley picked up from teammate Mohamed Sanu.
“Mo told me when you get real close and you shoot the Jugs really hard, it means you’ve got to squeeze that ball,” Ridley explained. “It just helps me squeeze the ball better because sometimes, I catch it and my hands will be like … I just want to squeeze the ball more.”
Calvin Ridley stands super close to the Jugs machine when catching footballs in order to make his “hands stronger.” Vaughn McClure/ESPN
Ridley uses the Jugs machine every day and tries to catch, at minimum, 50 footballs. Interestingly enough, his mentor, Jones, doesn’t believe in using the machine because Jones thinks it fails to simulate how an actual pass comes at you. The ball is too perfect.
“He’s totally right,” Ridley said. “That’s why I move. I move my arms, or I move my body when I move out to catch. But when I’m close, I just want to work on getting my hands stronger.”
At one point, Ridley contorted his body in a manner where he basically sat down yet still raised his hands up to catch the shooting footballs. That’s far from the only element to Ridley perfecting his craft.
“I work on a lot of stuff out there,” he said. “It might be one period, I’m working on just my feet, just releases, my head, my stick, my hands, just making sure they’re out in front. I just do all that on my own.”
It doesn’t go unnoticed.
“Just notice how professional he is already this early in his career,” tight end Austin Hooper said. “His ability to just go out there and work, it’s second to none in terms of rookies I’ve been around. His capacity for knowledge, he’s very smart. He knows the right position to be in. Plus, he’s incredibly athletic and knows how to create separation.”
If there’s a friendly competition going on, Ridley wouldn’t reveal it.
His brother, Riley, is a junior wide receiver at Georgia. According to listed numbers, Riley is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier.
Calvin Ridley gets emotional at his watch party in Florida, after being drafted by the Falcons. Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP
Just like Calvin led the Falcons in receiving last week, Riley led the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs with five catches for 87 yards and a 33-yard touchdown in a 43-29 win against Missouri. For the season, Riley Ridley has 13 catches for 169 yards with three touchdowns through four games.
“Competition? Nah. Not right now,” Calvin Ridley said of his brother. “I just want him to do good. I talk to him pretty much every day. During the week, we won’t talk much about football.
“He didn’t make it to our last game. He can’t really make it here because it’s hard with college. He’s tired, probably, and he’s got study hall and all that stuff.”
Ridley will try to see his brother play this season when he can, after the two squared off in last season’s College Football Playoff National Championship, won by Alabama. Their mother made headlines for wearing one of those split T-shirts representing both sons.
One NFL evaluator broke down Riley Ridley’s pro potential.
“He’s a second-or-third round draft pick,” the evaluator said. “He’s just like Calvin. Both have good hands. Both have got long arms. They both have good instincts. They’re fast, just not super-fast. They’re good players. And this is [Riley’s] first year starting full-time, so he’ll get to do more things.”
Of course, Riley Ridley hopes to join his brother in the NFL. For now, Calvin is representing the family rather well.
“I’ve got to go out here and do what I’ve got to do to make my family happy,” Ridley said.
He’s off to quite a fast start.