The Falcons traded Julio Jones in the offseason, but they still have two elite fantasy football receivers for 2021: third-year wideout Calvin Ridley and rookie Kyle Pitts. Atlanta’s two more recent reality first-round picks are going early in fantasy drafts at their positions.
Ridley is being taken by most managers in the second round as a top-four wide receiver, matching his scoring finish in half-point PPR leagues from 2020. Pitts, after posting a monster final season at Florida (43 catches for 770 yards, 12 TDs), is getting selected on average in the fifth round, anywhere from fourth through sixth among tight ends.
Can you trust that both Ridley and Pitts will deliver great return on investments in their respective draft ranges? Absolutely. They both have the complete skill sets to post big catch, yardage and touchdown totals, from stretching the field to finishing in the red zone.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has helped many of his targets over the years produce like studs, including Roddy White, Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and his long-time go-to guy Jones. Now it’s Ridley and Pitts’ turn to dominate as a dynamic duo. Talent is No. 1 thing that defines fantasy football studs and Ridley and Pitts have youthful oodles of it.
“At different points in your career — and I’ve played for a long time — there are different waves of it. Early I had Roddy and Tony G. came in my second year. Both those guys were extremely productive. These guys are different in terms of their skill sets,” Ryan said.
“Roddy was a big, strong, bruising type receiver, really physical. Calvin has great speed and change of direction, and a really good ability to create separation. I’m excited to see what Kyle can bring to the table. He works hard and is eager to learn. He’s also awesome to be around.”
Ridley, when Jones was hurt for much of last season with a hamstring injury, already emerged as a true No. 1, catching 90 of his 143 targets for 1,374 yards and 9 TDs. He also averaged an impressive 15.3 yards per catch. That’s a scary floor for Ridley as he transitions to a new offense under play-calling rookie head coach Arthur Smith, one that will take further advantage of Ridley’s big-play flair as he is schemed open more often off play-action shots downfield.
“He’s been explosive for us since he’s been here in Atlanta, one of the best in the league making explosive plays” Ryan said. “He has a great ability to run those deeper routes, a good feel for when to create that separation to win in the timing of the play, which is huge. He also has great hands and fits in well with what Art (Coach Smith) is trying to do here. From his skill set to his mental makeup, Calvin has everything you would want to be one of premier receivers in this league.”
Ryan paid attention on Saturdays when Pitts was catching everything in college last season and has been more impressed in person with Pitts’ hands, athleticism and red zone prowess through training camp and preseason game action.
“Watching him on TV, you could see this guy could make some plays. From throwing with Kyle early on, he’s got great range and is extremely long,” Ryan said. “Tight end can be difficult at first because you have so many different job requirements. You have to be physical and you have to understand the scheme, plus you’re heavily involved in the passing game. It can overwhelming, but he’s done a great job in camp paying attention to the details.
“For us, the goal is to let him improve as the year goes on. The player you see in Week 1 will be very different from the guy you see toward the end of the season. If we can do that, he will have a great first season.”
What will help Ryan get the ball well to his studs in the new-look passing game is a scheme with some familiar concepts to the one that produced his 2016 MVP season under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur. Smith coached the Titans’ tight ends before succeeding LaFleur as that team’s offensive coordinator in 2019.
“From a learning and terminology standpoint, having being around it before helps tremendously,” Ryan said. “The learning curve is reduced and you pick it up much faster. At one point in my career we were doing this or stuff similar to this. Art has his own nuance on how he wants to do things, so you try to pick up those things as quickly as possible. But having a good foundation of what we’re doing, I feel comfortable with that.”
The statistical upside of Ridley and Pitts also boosted by the fact they have complementary receiving games to put defenses in tough coverage dilemmas every week. With Smith mixing up personnel groupings between “11” (three wide receivers) and his signature “12” from Tennessee (two tight ends), No. 2 wideout Russell Gage and No. 2 tight end Hayden Hurst will be among those giving Ridley and Pitts the right amount of support to keep those defenses honest.
“Both of these guys are versatile. You can put them in many spots.” Ryan said of Ridley and Pitts. “They both have a really good feel for the entire route tree. Some guys are inside or outside only, feeling comfortable with only a small portion of the routes. Both of these guys can go inside or outside. They will play off each well and will also have some solid other weapons with speed who can make you pay, too. I’m excited about it and it’s going to be a lot of fun in this offense.”
Ryan, aka “Matty Ice,” talked with SN to promote the Tide Cold Washing Machine, which included him doing a commercial with fellow cool nicknamed celebrities “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Ice-T. The #TurnToCold campaign encourages more environmentally friendly washing and will award some of the exclusive money-saving machines to lucky NFL fans.
“I was also excited to shoot a commercial with two childhood heroes of mine,” Ryan said. “I grew up watching ‘Stone Cold’, also listening to Ice-T and then watching him on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ for so long. I never thought I would meet either of them, but to be able to spend a day with them — they were such cool guys, down to earth, fun to be around — it’s a day I will always remember.”