Roll Tide! Falcons add another Alabama receiver with Ridley
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — The last time the Atlanta Falcons picked an Alabama receiver in the first round of the NFL draft, it worked out pretty well.
So, when Calvin Ridley was still on the board Thursday night at No. 26, they knew what to do.
The Falcons landed another Nick Saban receiver for their offensive arsenal, adding Ridley to a unit led by Julio Jones .
Jones, of course, played at Alabama.
Now, he’s one of the NFL’s best pass catchers.
Ridley can’t wait to team up with him.
“I’m very excited to be coming in with Julio,” Ridley said in a conference call, shortly after the Falcons announced their pick near the end of the draft’s first day. “I know I’m going to learn a lot from him and become a better player, a better wide receiver. I’m just very, very happy to be in that organization.”
Flashing the confidence that is a trademark of all great receivers, Ridley was clearly surprised that he didn’t go much higher.
“I’m going to prove a lot of people wrong,” he said. “I’m happy the Falcons selected me, but I could’ve been picked way before. I’m going to work hard and I’m going to prove everybody wrong who always doubted me. I’m going to make everybody believe.”
The Falcons were eager to give quarterback Matt Ryan another deep threat, bolstering an offense that dipped in production last season after leading the NFL in scoring in 2016.
While defensive tackle was a priority, Atlanta couldn’t pass up the chance to grab the 6-foot-1, 189-pound Ridley, who managed to stand out even while playing in a run-oriented offense on Alabama’s national championship team . As a junior, he had 63 receptions for 967 yards and five touchdowns.
“This is another firepower weapon for us,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “He will mix in very well in our offense.”
In 2011, the Falcons pulled off a major trade with Cleveland to move up to No. 6 overall so they could grab Jones. He quickly emerged as one of the league’s most dominant receivers, including 88 catches for 1,444 yards last season.
While Mohamed Sanu has put up decent numbers as the No. 2 receiver, he’s not the sort of game-changer who can draw coverages away from Jones.
The Falcons feel Ridley has that potential.
“His ability to create separation from the defender is really powerful and explosive,” coach Dan Quinn said. “We have a clear understanding of how to feature this guy in our system. We’re real excited about the things he can do.”
In an interesting twist, the final game of Ridley’s college career was at the home of the Falcons. Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosted this year’s thrilling national championship game , in which Ridley caught a 7-yard touchdown pass that tied the game in the closing minutes of regulation before Alabama defeated Southeastern Conference rival Georgia 26-23 in overtime.
Ridley will also be reunited with Steve Sarkisian, who was briefly the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator before taking the same role with the Falcons.
“He was real cool,” Ridley recalled. “He was trying to get me that ball, I know that.”
While the Falcons had no overly pressing needs after their second straight trip to the playoffs, they were looking to bulk up the interior of the defensive line. Dontari Poe was lost in free agency, signing with division rival Carolina to leave a hole in Atlanta’s run defense.
But with Ridley still on the board, the Falcons decided to address those needs later in the draft. They passed on the chance to draft another SEC player, Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan, who went shortly afterward to the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 29.
“We definitely had other guys in our sights,” Dimitroff said. “They’re both very good football players. In the end, we decided to go with offense.”
It was a change of philosophy from the last three years.
Since Quinn came aboard as coach in 2015, defense had been the No. 1 priority. The last three first-round picks were all from that side of the line: defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. in 2015, safety Keanu Neal in 2016 and end Takkarist McKinley a year ago.
Quinn smiled when asked if it was difficult to pass up another defensive player.
“We were prepared to go a couple of different ways,” Quinn said. “When this opportunity came about, we felt it was the best one for our team.”