Falcons rookie Calvin Ridley on kickoff returns: 'I want to get the ball'

Calvin Ridley has a chance to be a breakout rookie in a strong Atlanta offense. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons first-round draft pick Calvin Ridley wasn't initially expected to become an immediate contributor on special teams, but he's more than willing to fulfill the need if asked.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn mentioned during the offseason how Ridley could get a look at kickoff returner along with Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall and fellow rookie Ito Smith. Such a scenario came to life in last Friday's preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs, when Ridley returned the opening kickoff 34 yards to help set up a touchdown. His pair of returns for 52 yards earned him another shot at returning in this Saturday's third preseason game at Jacksonville (7 p.m. ET).

So is Ridley ready to become the team's full-time kickoff returner?

"I'm trying to help the team the best I can," Ridley said Sunday. "Any possible way. It doesn't matter. I want to get the ball. That's another way for me to get it, another opportunity to showcase my ability. So if coach wants me back there and he trusts me enough to do that, I'll do whatever it takes."

It's only natural to wonder if using Ridley in the return game is a wise move, considering the injury risk. He is expected to play an integral role on offense, possibly as Matt Ryan's No. 2 target behind Julio Jones.

Coach Dan Quinn isn't overly concerned about such risk, citing the change in kickoff rules aimed to reduce collisions, the number of touchbacks expected and the possible use of multiple kickoff returners as reasons why it wouldn't compromise Ridley's health.

"If I felt that was the case, I certainly wouldn't put a player in a spot to do that," Quinn said. "He's definitely going to have a significant role on offense. But his role also is to create explosive plays. And if that's either way, we'd certainly consider that."

Ridley isn't worried about potential injury, either.

"I've just got to protect myself," he said. "And I trust my teammates to go out there and block and help me set up stuff so we can be efficient and help the team look good and win."

Ridley, who ran a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, has the speed and change of direction to be an effective return specialist. The last first-round wide receiver who had a significant role as a returner as a rookie was fellow Alabama product Amari Cooper, who returned eight punts for the Oakland Raiders in 2015.

Of the eight wide receivers who had 20-plus kickoff returns last season, only one of them -- Tyler Lockett of Seattle -- had a significant role on offense. Lockett, who was second in the league with 37 kickoff returns and averaged 25.6 yards per return, had 45 receptions for 455 yards and 2 touchdowns. None of the other seven wide receiver/kickoff returners had more than 13 receptions.

Former Falcon Andre Roberts led the league with 38 kickoff returns last season for an average of 22.6 yards, which ranked ninth best among regular returners. But that wasn't necessarily a good thing, considering touchbacks land the ball at the 25-yard line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Falcons' average offensive field position after kickoff last season was the 24.6-yard line, which ranked 26th in the league. Their average overall field position was at 25.9 yards, which ranked second-to-last in the league, just above the Houston Texans (25.2).

The Falcons haven't had a "feared" kickoff returner since Devin Hester in 2014-15, and Hester's probably the greatest return man of all time.

However, as the return game unfolds for the Falcons leading into the season, they definitely could use a boost. And Ridley could provide it.

"He is dynamic with the ball in his hands," Quinn said.