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Art of the route: Riley Ridley brings route-running expertise to Bears’ offense

In an X’s and O’s breakdown, we take a look at what makes Ridley such a good route runner.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri
New Bears wide receiver Riley Ridley is one of the best route runners in the 2019 class.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears made it a point of emphasis to add talent at wide receiver in 2018.

Gone were Kendall Wright, Dontrelle Inman, Cameron Meredith and Markus Wheaton. In their places came Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller. Josh Bellamy started in just two games—as opposed to seven in 2018—and Javon Wims was brought on as depth. The Bears signed free agent Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency this March, giving them more talent to an already-talented unit.

That made it surprising when they drafted a wide receiver in the fourth round last week.

While the position wasn’t one of their biggest needs on the roster, value won over positional need when the Bears took Georgia’s Riley Ridley with the No. 126 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Seen as a consensus Day 2 selection, Ridley’s availability late in the fourth round was a shock to many, with Chicago’s front office among them.

Though the Bears have a stacked group of receivers that also includes veteran Marvin Hall and undrafted free agent Emanuel Hall as competition for a roster spot, Ridley stands out as a potential starter for a team who will need help from players on cheap, rookie contracts as they extend some of their core pieces.

One of the most impressive aspects of his skill set is his route-running ability. The former Bulldog shares that similarity with his brother, 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons. In this article, we will be taking a look at what exactly makes the rookie’s route running so impressive.

The first play is a simple hitch route. The cornerback is lined up roughly five yards off of Ridley, giving him some cushion to work with. Knowing he has a lot of room to work with before he has to make a cut, he bursts off of the line of scrimmage with impressive acceleration. The defensive back’s movement to the outside indicates that he think Ridley is headed towards the back end of the end zone on a fade or a lobbed corner route. Fooling the defender, Ridley stems the route well and gets leverage on his man. He is able to drop his hips and stop on a dime, wasting essentially no steps in making a quick move.

Ridley does a very good job of understanding the importance of winning leverage as a route runner. On this play, his defender is aligned over his outside foot, which gives him the leverage to cut inside. Using a single move to release from press-man coverage, he plants his outside foot and diverts his route inside to create separation. While the broadcast angle makes it tougher to see the full extent of the route, he is able to accelerate well out of his breaks and make the catch.

Ridley’s ability to make sharp cuts and still maintain his momentum is among the best in this year’s receiver class. Going against soft-press coverage on this play, he has leverage on the outside on this play. With his short strides off the snap, though, he is able to close the space in between him and his man, and in doing so, he evens up with defender and creates leverage to go in either direction. After closing the space, he treats the release like a press release, utilizing a single move cut on the slant. His acceleration after the cut allows him to break free and create a wider window for his quarterback.

When given a cushion in coverage, Ridley will make cornerbacks pay more often than not. He bursts off the snap on this play, significantly narrowing the space between him and his man, but still allowing enough room for him to take advantage of the cornerback’s leverage. While he has outside leverage, he flips his hips to the inside with the expectation that Ridley will cut inside for a drag or in route. Still with some space to work with, Ridley cuts outside for a corner route with his defender’s hips committed to covering an in-breaking route. He makes a sharp cut and a hard plant with his inside foot, maintaining momentum at the same time. Even with the late release from his quarterback cutting down the window his receiver created for him, Ridley is able to snag the ball in a contested situation. As an added bonus, he shows that body control to adjust to the ball and stay in bounds to score a touchdown.

Ridley best projects as a Z receiver in the NFL, where his abilities to work as a route runner in space will be best suited. This would make him the primary backup to Taylor Gabriel this season. However, he has shown that he can win against press, so he could potentially see some snaps as an X receiver, too.

What the Bears plan on doing with their fourth-round pick in his rookie season is still undetermined. Rest assured, though, that Ridley has potential to be one of the biggest steals in this year’s draft.