Can Calvin Ridley become the next Amari Cooper?
The Alabama Crimson Tide come into the 2016 season as our top team in the nation, and have the talent of defense to have a historic season on that side of the ball. That being said, if they are going to be a dominant team in 2016, they are going to need someone to make an impact on offense like they got out of Heisman Trophy winner running back Derrick Henry in 2015, and star wide receiver Amari Cooper in 2014. Replacing Henry isn’t going to be easy, so instead they may need to look to the outside — where wide receiver Calvin Ridley has the skill set to be the focal point of the offense this year.
Ridley had the seventh-highest receiving grade of any wide receiver in the SEC last year, and he did that as a freshman. Much was made of the fact that he is 21 years old already, but that shouldn’t take away from what was a fantastic season last year. Alabama were transitioning from having one of the best wide receivers to ever play for the team in Cooper, and while Ridley didn’t quite take over at the level Cooper did, he took over as the team’s top receiver from day one.
Catching 89 passes for 1,045 yards over the course of the season, Ridley picked up 568 of those yards after the catch and forced 13 missed tackles as a receiver. The ability to make the defense miss is key for the Alabama offense, and if Ridley can continue to make defenders miss he will continue to grow as a receiver. Cooper forced 26 missed tackles on 124 receptions in 2014, so Ridley still has room to improve here to catch Cooper.
He’s not just a gadget wide receiver though, and if 2015 was anything to go by, he’s well on his way to becoming a complete receiver for the Crimson Tide. In his final season at Alabama, Cooper picked up 531 yards on throws 20 yards or more downfield — second in the SEC next to South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper. Ridley was a serious downfield threat himself, catching eight of the nine catchable passes thrown his way travelling 20 yards or more downfield, for 385 yards and four touchdowns. Those 385 yards ranked third in the SEC on deep passes, including the touchdown against Georgia below.
To be a top receiver however, it’s not just about being able to make people miss and having the speed to beat defensive backs deep, it also means having to make some tough catches and going up to win the ball. Ridley did just that, which helped him finish ninth in the conference averaging 2.45 yards per route run over the course of the season. Our yards per route run signature stat measures the amount of yards a receiver picks up for every time they run a route, giving a better indication of production than receiving stats along. Ridley’s 2.45 yard average was impressive, but still some way off the 3.97 YPRR averaged by Cooper back in 2014. That being said, Ridley didn’t put up that impressive average without some excellent catches, like the one below on the sideline against Tennessee.
How Ridley is used
For Ridley to become as good as Cooper was — or at least be as important to the Alabama offense — he has to be able to be used in the same way. In Cooper’s final season at Alabama he saw 18 percent of his receptions come on wide receiver screens, 15 percent on hitches and 16 percent on go routes. As a freshman, Ridley too saw 18 percent of his receptions come on wide receiver screens, and was close on hitches (11 percent) and go routes (14 percent). While he still has a long way to go, Ridley’s route profile shows that he had similar success in the same areas as Cooper did.
Alabama has the chance to win back-to-back national championships this year, but they can’t get there just on the back of their defense alone, despite the talent of that unit. Provided he can build on from an impressive freshman season — and there’s no reason to think he can’t — Calvin Ridley can be the big-play catalyst on offense in 2016, and help power them back to glory.