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Making a mark: Riley Ridley helps the Bears play for the present and the future

By Robert Zeglinski

One could be forgiven for furrowing an eyebrow at the Bears’ selection of Riley Ridley in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. While the polished Ridley—talented enough and certainly built well enough for pro football—fits the Bears, it’s difficult to argue his addition filled an immediate need.

After all, it was only a little over a year ago when Chicago invested heavily in wide receiver with Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller. By the time Ridley was an option for the Bears this April, no one at Halas Hall was bereft of offensive playmaking, or of anyone with the potential to make plays. Being confused at Ridley’s pick would’ve been a reasonable reaction when taking into account the at-face Bears’ receiving situation.

It would also have been shortsighted.

By the time the Bears were on the clock in the fourth round they didn’t have any glaring holes. A time will come where they’ll have to address cornerback and potentially pass rusher, as you can only ignore growing potholes for so long. Those potholes will eventually cave in and ruin your car’s suspension, but you can overlook them for a little while. The time to address them wasn’t now. The Bears’ active situation meant they were free to take any direction they pleased.

Another budding weapon for Mitchell Trubisky and Matt Nagy to grow with? Why not? What’s the harm?

As the Bears start up minicamp this week and get a thorough look at their active roster, the young Ridley can be presented as a luxury pick: Someone who should help the Bears’ offense make The Leap, but wasn’t necessary for the present. He’s a selection made by an already gluttonous team looking for their second, third, and fourth helpings at dinner with no end in sight.

But construing Ridley’s place with the Bears as a mere luxury is a myopic perspective. It’s not interpreted in a manner that recognizes the reality for the rest of the Bears’ receivers, whether they’re seasoned veterans such as Robinson or growing stars like Miller. It doesn’t consider the long-term futures of everyone catching passes from Trubisky, and how they fit in financially. Each of Robinson and Gabriel have minimal dead salary cap space left on their respective contracts after the upcoming season. If you’re adept at palm-reading, one of them likely won’t be playing alongside Lake Michigan in 2020 and Ridley is the theoretical replacement.

Most importantly, it fails to recognize what a nuanced player such as Ridley is capable of in an offense that trusts him implicitly from the get-go.

In 2018, Ridley’s last year with Georgia, the 22-year-old produced 43 receptions for 559 yards and nine touchdowns. Those are hardly premier numbers for anyone and they’re part of the reason Ridley fell to the third day of the draft. But, crucially, they’re more than he had produced in the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined. They’re an example of what can happen for Ridley once the game slows down and comes into complete focus for him: By then, only he can stop himself.

Where the 6-foot-2 Ridley most peaks is, well, at the peak of the ball in the air. Last year, no one in the traditionally elite SEC was better at catching contested passes of any kind than Ridley. His contested catch rate of 75 percent per Pro Football Focus was higher than the actual Biletnikoff Award winner – given to college football’s top receiver – in Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy. If the ball was close to his vicinity, it was Ridley’s. If it wasn’t close to him, it probably was his ball, too. Ridley was the judge and the jury any time he saw himself in tight coverage.

Ridley knows he has a long way to go before he usurps anyone on the Bears. As he told UGASports in March, Ridley has the highest expectations of himself but wants to learn properly from those with experience first. A premonition of what was to come for him with the Bears.

“I can be an explosive player,” said Ridley. “I hope to come in and learn from the older guys and just hold my value. I see myself as a No. 1 guy, but like I said I just want to come in and learn from the older guys, learn the way with whatever team I’m with.”

There may come a situation where Ridley is forced to play early this coming fall. Where despite having multiple Bears receivers ahead of him on the depth chart at the start of his career, he may take their place sooner, if only temporarily. Injuries and inconsistency rear their ugly heads more often than anyone would like, necessitating the need for depth and youth like Ridley waiting on the bench.

There may also be a scenario where Ridley features early for the Bears because he wholeheartedly earned it. In what could be viewed as a cruel twist of fate, it’d be where he took small gifts of advice from mentors such as Robinson, Gabriel and even Miller, and quite literally ran with them.

Ridley wasn’t drafted as a ceremonial luxury or to wait it out for his turn for a year. His turn is now. He was taken for the Bears’ future and present at the same time. He was taken for his pedigree and potential. He was taken to play and to make an impact, like most draft picks, but with higher expectations for a mid-round pick than most. He lets the Bears play both sides of the coin to win now and to sustain: Football’s version of having your cake and stuffing your face with it, too.

The next time you furrow your eyebrow at Ridley, it’ll likely be in a positive sense after an acrobatic catch downfield, a superbly-run route, or a strenuously-scored touchdown. The only confusion in this case will be why the Bears didn’t pull out all the stops to draft Ridley earlier.

Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. 

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