New England Patriots

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 26: Calvin Ridley #18 of the Atlanta Falcons runs for a first down during the second quarter in the game against New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on September 26, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The Patriots’ next No. 1 pass catcher may have to come via trade, but it’s not impossible. Trade rumors are already starting to simmer about the Atlanta Falcons and star wideout Calvin Ridley.

At the very least, there are multiple NFC teams that have put thought into it. One scout told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that Ridley could end up getting traded because the Falcons are “cash-strapped and needs pieces along the offensive line, so they could use the draft capital.” As for a possible asking price, another league exec estimated a conditional second round pick that could turn into a first.

Fowler names the Patriots, Saints, and Dolphins as teams who “could covet” Ridley.

Offensively, the Pats took a step forward in 2021 after overhauling the skill positions in free agency and the draft. They identified legitimate building blocks with receiver Kendrick Bourne and tight end Hunter Henry, while Jakobi Meyers set new career highs with 83 catches and 866 yards and finally caught his first career touchdown.

But in order to maximize quarterback Mac Jones’ potential during his rookie deal, the Patriots may need to land more of a high-end pass-catching target for him, someone he can trust to make a play in any situation and in the most important ones. Meyers, Bourne, and Henry have shown some dependability and even in the clutch, but they’re not the level of talent that Ridley is.

Entering 2021, Ridley had established himself as a legitimate upper-echelon receiver with the Falcons, and a guy who could be the No. 1 pass-catching option on many teams. He caught. career-high 90 passes for 1,374 yards in 2020, with nine touchdowns. He was productive right out of the gate for the Falcons with 10 touchdowns as a rookie out of Alabama.

Ridley was never teammates with Jones in college, but he did play with running back Damien Harris and linebacker Anfernee Jennings. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, the Patriots had Ridley on a “small list” of possible picks at No. 23 in the 2018 NFL Draft. They ultimately opted for tackle Isaiah Wynn.

  • Why Would Atlanta Trade Him?

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 03: Calvin Ridley #18 of the Atlanta Falcons runs with the ball after the catch against Kendall Fuller #29 of the Washington Football Team in the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 03: Calvin Ridley #18 of the Atlanta Falcons runs with the ball after the catch against Kendall Fuller #29 of the Washington Football Team in the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    Ridley is a classic subject for the “change of scenery” cliché. He played only five games in 2021, before stepping away from football at the end of October to work on his mental health.

    “This will help me be the best version of myself now and in the future,” Ridley said, in part, in a social media post on Oct. 31. He hasn’t posted to any of his accounts since. It’s unclear what exactly Ridley is battling, or whether he wants to stay with the Falcons or move on.

    Ridley is due $11.1 million on his fifth-year option, a relative bargain if he delivers 2020-level production. The Patriots would need to maneuver money and assets to make room for Ridley, but business-wise, trading a day-2 draft pick for him would be preferable to making another free-agent splash.

    The 2021 free-agent receiver class is top-heavy, with Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, and Chris Godwin among the names on track to his the market. Other names on track for free agency are Mike Williams, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Will Fuller, T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Green, and Emmanuel Sanders.

  • What’s Stopping The Patriots?

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 25: Calvin Ridley #18 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates his two point conversion reception against the Detroit Lions during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 25, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 25: Calvin Ridley #18 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates his two point conversion reception against the Detroit Lions during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    In Foxboro, the only real roadblock to a Ridley trade is the presence of Nelson Agholor. He’s on the books for $9.8 million and a cap hit of $14 million in 2022. The Patriots could net cap space by cutting or trading Agholor.

    They would save $5 million more with a trade than they would with a release ($9.8M vs $4.8M, via Spotrac). But it’s hard to believe that another team would take on Agholor’s contract, despite it being only a one-year commitment.

    Agholor’s production took a dip in his first season with the Patriots. He made 37 catches, the second-lowest total of his career, for 473 yards and three touchdowns.

    He shouldn’t have been expected to produce significantly more than he did in the Patriots’ week-to-week, spread-it-around system. But compared to his teammates, Agholor wasn’t as big of a contributor to the Patriots’ offensive growth. Agholor had as poor of a finish to the season as anyone in the Patriots’ 47-17 loss to the Bills, catching just one of two targets for 18 yards and getting out-worked for a deep ball on an interception by Bills safety Micah Hyde.

    You know who would’ve been more likely to go up and get that ball? Ridley. So if the Patriots could land him in a trade for a reasonable amount of draft capital, they should at least look into it.

    According to Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan, the Patriots currently have just under $3.7 million in space. So if they want to make more significant additions to the roster, even a trade, they have more moves to make.

  • Sports Hub Underground Podcast

    Ty Anderson and I talked about the Patriots as part of this week’s episode of the Sports Hub Underground. You can hear the full podcast above. There’s plenty of hockey talk, too, but you can jump to 35:52 for football.