What to expect from Jaguars WR Calvin Ridley in 2023

Why fantasy managers should be on the lookout for Calvin Ridley (1:46)

Field Yates breaks down why he thinks Calvin Ridley will have a great fantasy season with the Jaguars. (1:46)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It didn't take Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Calvin Ridley long to prove a point. Less than 20 minutes into the team's first training camp practice, actually.

The throw from Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence in a 7-on-7 was a little high and maybe a tad behind, so Ridley went up and got it. Full extension, twisting, grabbing and pulling the ball into his body to protect it before landing on the ground.

He sat up, crossed his arms, jogged toward the end zone, and pointed at the 2,000 fans cheering the acrobatic catch. It was a pretty emphatic way for Ridley to assure everyone that he's back on the field.

As he prepares for his first NFL regular-season game in nearly two years, he feels good physically and mentally. His skills haven't diminished despite time away from the game while focusing on bettering his mental health and serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's gambling policy. He's not rusty, and, frankly, he's getting tired of people asking.

"Everybody wants me to be rusty, right?" Ridley said. "Why? Why do you want me to be rusty? I can play football. I'm never going to think I'm going to be rusty.

"If I drop a pass, that doesn't mean I'm rusty. I just dropped it."

The past three years have been tough on Ridley. This past spring, Ridley wrote in The Players' Tribune that he played the entire 2020 season for the Atlanta Falcons with what he was told was a bone bruise. When it didn't get better in the offseason, he sought out a specialist who told Ridley he had a broken foot.

Ridley had surgery and reported to training camp that summer, but said he felt mentally drained -- he said he needed painkillers to play and was anxious and depressed.

Ridley wrote that his anxiety got worse when his family returned home following the Falcons' 2021 season opener and learned "five or six armed men" had broken into his house.

As a result, he didn't want to leave his family and travel overseas for the Falcons' game in London on Oct. 10, so he stayed in Atlanta. On Oct. 31, Ridley announced he was stepping away from the game to focus on his mental well-being and didn't play for the rest of the 2021 season.

Fast-forward to March 7, 2022, when the NFL announced that Ridley would be suspended for at least the 2022 season after an investigation found that he bet on NFL games over a five-day stretch in November 2021. Ridley said in The Players' Tribune that gambling on NFL games was the "worst mistake of his life."

While he was serving the suspension in November, the Jaguars traded for Ridley -- sending the Falcons a 2023 fifth-round pick and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2024 that could rise as high as a second-round pick if the Jaguars sign Ridley to an extension.

On March 6, 2023, he was reinstated from the gambling suspension and began to participate in the Jaguars' offseason programs.

Ridley, 28, believes he's the same player he was in 2020 -- when he caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns -- but it's legitimate to ask after a tumultuous three years: What should we realistically expect from Ridley in his return?

PLAYERS MISS SEASONS for various reasons -- commonly due to injury -- and return the following season playing at the same level. But Ridley will have missed 28 consecutive games spanning 686 days between Oct. 24, 2021, and the Jaguars' season opener on Sept. 10. That's a long layoff.

Comparatively, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson missed 28 consecutive games spanning 700 days after an NFL investigation into sexual misconduct allegations led to an 11-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault and sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

In 2020, Watson set career highs in touchdown passes (33) and passing yards (4,823, which led the NFL) and had a career-low seven interceptions. When Watson returned to the field on Dec. 4, 2022, he struggled over the final six games of the season. He surpassed 200 yards passing twice and completed 58.2% of his passes for 1,102 yards and seven touchdowns with five interceptions.

There is a track record of pass-catchers returning from a layoff to have productive seasons. Six players since 2010 had 65 or more catches in a season after playing in five or fewer games in their previous two seasons combined (not including rookies).

Giants tight end Darren Waller went 700 days in between NFL game appearances. Waller was suspended for the 2017 season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. In November of 2018, the Raiders signed Waller off the Ravens' practice squad and he played in four games that season. In 2019 and 2020, Waller put up career numbers, surpassing 1,000 yards receiving and 90 catches each season.

Terrelle Pryor (77 in 2016), Mike Williams (65 in 2010), Josh Gordon (41 in 2018) and Plaxico Burress (45 in 2011) are the last four receivers to have at least 40 receptions in a season after playing five or fewer games in the previous two seasons combined.

Ridley should have no trouble joining that list, especially since he's now playing with a quarterback in Lawrence who threw the third-most touchdown passes (23, behind only Josh Allen's 26 and Joe Burrow's 28) to a wide receiver last season, including playoffs.

"There's no concern [about Ridley being rusty] on my end," said Jaguars receivers coach Chad Hall.

"It's like riding a bike. He's done it at a high level already in this league, so he's just got to get back on the bike."

RIDLEY HAS BEEN the star of Jaguars training camp so far. Teammates, including Lawrence, have raved about him.

"Just watching him [and] the way he runs, there are not many guys like that, especially in and out of his breaks," Lawrence said. "He's just really crafty [and] has great ball skills."

Ridley is a year behind in learning coach Doug Pederson's offense, but Pederson said he sees no signs that Ridley can't be an elite player again.

"Ridley on offense, just the way he practices is just a different speed and a different level," Pederson said. "It's encouraging to me as a coach because it feeds to the rest of the guys, particularly the young guys. He's one that's really stood out there."

Ridley knows he still has it -- physically and mentally. In the spring, he said he no longer worries about his mental well-being now that his suspension is over and he's back to doing what he loves.

When asked about whether he got over the rust he admittedly felt in the spring, he responded with only two words: "I'm him."

A few days later, he explained what he meant.

"I'm a good receiver. I'm one of the better receivers in the league, that's what I've been saying since I was a rookie," he said. "I noticed that right when I got into the league. [I'm] trying to be humble but everyone has doubted me. I'm trying to fight back respectfully at the same time.

"... I'm just trying to show I got respect for myself, and I work hard. ... I'm trying to play well for the Jacksonville Jaguars."

Last weekend's preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys was Ridley's first game action since 2021. Ridley caught two passes for 21 yards in 12 offensive snaps -- a small step forward before the Jaguars' season opener.

THE JAGUARS RANKED 10th in scoring and total offense in 2022, thanks largely to the development of Lawrence and career years from receivers Zay Jones and Christian Kirk and tight end Evan Engram. Adding Ridley to that group of playmakers -- which also includes running back Travis Etienne Jr. -- could elevate the offense into the top five in both categories this season.

Ridley gives the Jaguars a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and it's expected that opposing defenses will make limiting him a top priority, which should loosen things up for everyone else. With that many playmakers for Pederson and Lawrence, it's hard to project what kind of numbers Ridley will post in 2023.

Ridley believes he is a 1,400-yard-type of player -- meaning he has the playmaking ability and skills of an elite receiver. The Jaguars are going to give him every chance to show it.

"He just wants to prove that he belongs at the top of this group of receivers across the league," offensive coordinator Press Taylor said. "I think that's important to him. For us, we welcome him with open arms. We want to do whatever it takes to make him feel comfortable to understand that he's another key piece of this offense that we intend to utilize."

Without any rust.