Dynasty Watch: Ridley vs. Hardman
Dynasty Watch: Ridley vs. Hardman

This article is part of our Dynasty Watch series.

This blurb will address the two Georgia underclassman wide receivers, Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman. Those two figure to be the subject of one of the more contentious draft debates this year, and the question of your preference between the two likely reveals a lot about your prospect philosophy generally.

I'll try to resist my windbag impulses and focus on distilling the subjects down to their most actionable details for owners in dynasty leagues, but this of course runs a bit long anyway. I will have to get to Elijah Holyfield (RB, Georgia), J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (WR, Stanford), Dwayne Haskins (QB, Ohio State), Damarea Crockett (RB, Missouri), Tyree Jackson (QB, Buffalo), and Isaac Nauta (TE, Georgia) starting on Wednesday.

Riley Ridley, WR, Georgia (6-foot-2, 200 pounds)

I have some pretty serious concerns with Ridley as anything more than a mid-round target, but it appears NFL scouts and coaches are likely to evaluate him more favorably than I will. My gripe is pretty simple for now – I find the modest production concerning and in the meantime I have no reason to assume he'll offset that mediocre production with top-10th percentile athleticism like I would need to see to take him seriously as a top-40ish prospect. Ridley is pretty obviously setting up to be a case where the Film Guys (which largely correlates to Old School ideology) like Ridley a lot while the metrics guys (ie people who are more sympathetic to analytics) will probably find him barely draftable. I'm in the middle, but it is objectively safe to say that Ridley's brand is more voluminous than his production.

I may have buried the lede by waiting until now to mention that Ridley is the brother of Calvin, who of course was a first-round pick and enjoyed a 10-touchdown rookie season with the Falcons, even despite running as their WR3 in 2018. Like Calvin, Riley's age is a bit advanced for his level – Riley will turn 23 in July even as an early entrant – but that one detail alone didn't mean much in Calvin's case if his rookie year was any indication.

More than his age, the concern with Riley is that he never produced anywhere near Calvin's level, and probably on a team with less talent than in Calvin's case. Calvin outproduced players like Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart at a younger age, and he held off surging top underclassman prospects like Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. Calvin also competed with OJ Howard for targets. In those three Alabama seasons Calvin would total 224 catches for 2,781 yards and 19 touchdowns in 44 games (63.2 yards, 0.43 touchdowns per game). In three Georgia seasons Riley totaled 69 catches for 1,015 yards and 13 touchdowns in 28 games (36.3 yards, 0.46 touchdowns per game). Riley's touchdown rate is a bit encouraging, but his competition for targets was less the likes of Foster, Stewart, Jeudy, Ruggs, and Howard and more in the vein of Javon Wims, Isaiah McKenzie, Terry Godwin, and the previously mentioned Hardman. Wims could still do something and McKenzie looks like an interesting gadget player in the mold of Tavon Austin, but Hardman is generally the only Georgia wide receiver who both battled with Riley for targets and otherwise had a conventionally promising NFL prospect profile.

This attempted distinction between Calvin and Ridley isn't to condemn the latter in a vacuum, but I think to hold Riley to Calvin's standards is to doom him to failure. Riley is a bit bigger than Calvin, and for all his volume limitations Riley still showed good per-target tendencies at Georgia. His career catch rate with the Bulldogs was 62.2, which appears mediocre at a glance but is probably quite good for the nature of his targets, which tended to be outside and downfield, as evidenced by his unambiguously strong YPT average of 9.1. Riley clearly has some tools to contribute meaningful NFL snaps on a competitive offense, the question is whether the NFL will settle on a reasonable bid for his services or presume too much out of him by reaching for him in the first round. If he goes in the first round, my comparison for Riley will be Travis Taylor or Bryant Johnson. If he goes in the third or fourth round like I think he ought to, I'll probably compare him to someone like Keelan Cole.

Those comparisons are only pending Ridley's eventual workout metrics, though, and I can't claim to know what those numbers will look like. Based on his tape, my guess with Ridley is that his athleticism will fall well short of the standard set by his older brother, who ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine. The second Ridley, I would imagine, is more likely to run in the low 4.5s with solid but unremarkable jump numbers. I don't see much on tape in the way of quickness or change of direction, but it's always risky to assume much about athleticism based on tape.

Tape is more useful for evaluating skill sets. Based on the tape I've seen, it would seem safe to say that Ridley at Georgia was almost exclusively an outside receiver in 2018, which is in contrast to his brother, a killer from the slot. This in itself is not reason to rule out the younger Ridley as a candidate for slot snaps – indeed, with where the league is headed the day of the exclusively outside wideout might already be past us – and it may only be due to the presence of very slot-heavy wideouts like McKenzie and Hardman that kept Ridley outside.

When he plays outside, Ridley in any case shows a nice bit of polished skill. Without trying to claim expertise on this specific part of the game, he seems to handle jams effectively and shows the sort of gliding movement that makes for effective route running when combined with disciplined technique. Ridley seems to do a good job of concealing the nature of his route until its break point, which is crucial for creating separation. Even if he doesn't create separation, the younger Ridley seems to possess a bigger wingspan than the older one, which makes him a good target on jumpballs and toward the sideline.

My main concern with this specific projection is that the younger Ridley is a bit thin, kind of like the previously mentioned Cole, and that may be a previously dormant issue that might show up more often when he faces NFL-sized corners with stronger jam skills. Even if Ridley's releases remain clean, he might get pushed around in traffic situations if he doesn't add some weight for boxing out. I'm not sure he's athletic enough to add such weight without falling into below average speed and agility, however. With that said, I need to emphasize again that any faith I have in anyone's ability to guess athleticism from tape is fleeting, and that applies to me as much as anyone. If the younger Ridley kills the combine, some of my concerns just go poof right there. In the meantime, I doubt I'll rank him as a top-10 wide receiver in this draft.

Projected round: 2-5

Mecole Hardman, WR, Georgia (5-foot-11, 183 pounds)

After the Ridley writeup you can probably guess my position on the Hardman vs. Ridley question. Indeed, this one is no contest for me at all. Ridley is an interesting boundary wide receiver, perhaps in the mold of players like Keelan Cole or Josh Reynolds, while Hardman is one of my favorite players in the draft.

Despite my emphatic optimism with Hardman, I must concede at the start that the optimism entails projection that may very well include a leap of faith or two. It shouldn't matter at all to anyone else's prospect evaluation processes, but this faith I have is unyielding. Hardman's skill set is a legitimate question, but he possesses top-grade athletic tools and otherwise shows a fierce demeanor that implies the competitiveness and general work ethic necessary to maximize his potential with experience.

The reason I'm enthusiastically willing to project this skill set growth is not only because of Hardman's obvious fire, but because he's a recent convert from cornerback to wide receiver. That switch occurred before the 2017 season, meaning Hardman played his second season of wide receiver in 2018. This is important context generally, but especially for my pro-Hardman case since I'm normally rather stubborn about the importance of production. Particularly in the sense of volume, Hardman's production at wide receiver does not obviously stand out. Perhaps I'm just practicing hypocrisy with my Hardman optimism, in that case, but I mean to argue otherwise.

Even though Ridley outproduced Hardman in 2018 in all of receptions, receiving yardage, and receiving touchdowns, I'm not for a second willing to consider the possibility that Ridley is the better prospect. More specifically than production, my concern is with age-adjusted production, because a player substantially younger than another should not be held to the same expectations. Players who produce early typically portend developmental upside, whereas players who break out late may very well indicate little more than a physical maturity advantage over their younger peers. Hardman has played receiver two years and, according to 247Sports, is at least one year younger than Ridley and potentially two. If that intel turns out to be bad, then I may have to revise my reasoning substantially.

For now, though, we have a player who should be much less polished due to inexperience and a younger age (Hardman) who was only trivially outproduced by a guy with more experience at the position and less room for growth at at least one year older and potentially two. The age and experience disparity alone negates Ridley's statistical advantage, and then there's the fact that Hardman outproduced Ridley in 2017, which I think decisively tilts the age-adjusted production question in Hardman's favor.

Ridley posted 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018 on 66 targets (66.7 percent catch rate, 8.6 YPT). Strong numbers to be sure, and better than Hardman's totals of 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns on 56 targets (60.7 percent catch rate, 9.5 YPT). But in 2017 – Hardman's first year post-cornerback – Hardman finished with 25 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns on 38 targets (65.8 percent catch rate, 11.0 YPT). Ridley was limited to eight games that year due to a suspension and foot injury, finishing with 14 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns on 23 targets, good for a catch percentage of 60.9 at 9.5 YPT.

If you compare the two over the two years combined, Ridley checks in with 58 catches for 788 yards and 11 touchdowns on 89 targets (65.2 catch rate, 8.9 YPT) with Hardman at 59 catches for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns on 94 targets (62.8 catch rate, 10.1 YPT). A job well done by Ridley, but I'd certainly give the advantage to Hardman, and that's before even factoring in the age or position switch considerations. I also need to mention that if we can consider the foot injury and suspension that disrupted Ridley's 2017, then we need to note that Hardman played through a bad ankle for an indefinite amount of the 2018 season.

If you focus more specifically on Hardman's athleticism, this is when his case really starts to pull away. I'm repeating a line I used on star Oklahoma wideout and potential 2019 first-round pick Marquise Brown – Hardman isn't just fast, he's one of the fastest players in football. Hardman was a five-star recruit at cornerback and notably showed killer open-field skills at Georgia, in large part because of speed, burst, and quickness that will almost certainly make your eyes widen the first time you watch him. Hardman might be the most dominant player at the combine this year if his tape is any indication. His already rare athleticism is only amplified by the hot motor he plays with. Hardman's production lags far behind the previously mentioned Brown, but the two should compete for the distinction of being the fastest wide receiver in the draft, and they're further similar because they both did damage from both the slot and outside, whereas Ridley is more of a question mark in the slot.

It's not especially interesting to me, but I guess I should note that Hardman was a dangerous ballcarrier and returner at Georgia, as well. He finished with 97 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries (7.5 YPC), and his production as a returner also stood out (15.2 and 25.0 yards per punt and kick return, respectively). No matter whether Hardman ever develops standout technique as a receiver, it's safe to say in the meantime that he'll be one of the most dangerous open-field runners in the NFL even if he never improves a bit.

But guys with his talents and demeanor usually do get better, especially when they've only played the position for two years. Click here to see Hardman beating Alabama and eventual NFL corner Tony Brown (Packers) for an 80-yard touchdown in Hardman's 15th game as a receiver. Brown ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the combine. If Hardman runs a 4.35 or better at 185 or more, I think he has a real shot at the first round. I pretty much have him, the previously mentioned Brown, A.J. Brown, and DK Metcalf all in the same tier contending for WR1 distinction in this draft. That particular honor is a long shot for Hardman at the moment, but I won't rule it out.

Projected round: 1-3

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mario Puig
Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.
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