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NFC South 2021: Falcons’ Calvin Ridley and other players on a rookie contract who are key to team’s success

The NFC South had plenty to brag about in 2020, as the division that hosts the Super Bowl champions in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers along with the team that has the most wins in the NFL over the last four seasons in the New Orleans Saints (49). Tampa Bay and New Orleans are the favorites to fight for the division crown once again, thanks to the astounding homegrown talent the franchises have developed over the past few years. 

The Saints have drafted very well despite their salary cap issues, led by the famous 2017 draft that landed Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, and Trey Hendrickson. The Buccaneers have an even more impressive draft haul since 2017, netting Chris Godwin, Devin White, Carlton Davis, Vita Vea, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Antoine Winfield Jr., and many others that played a pivotal role in the Super Bowl LV title.  

Developing homegrown players is the key to success in the NFL, resulting in annual playoff appearances and occasional deep playoff runs. The Saints and Buccaneers are two of the best in league in developing homegrown talent, as the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons look to copy their formula toward success. 

Here’s a look at a player on their rookie contract on each NFC South team that will play a huge role for their respective franchise in 2021: 

Saints: Ryan Ramczyk, RT

Player experience: Fifth season
How acquired: 2017 draft (First round, No. 32 overall)

Soon to be one of the highest-paid tackles in football, Ramczyk is already stating his case as one of the best right tackles in the game. A First Team All-Pro in 2019, Ramczyk racked up Second Team All-Pro honors in 2020 after allowing just 25 pressures, two quarterback hits, and two sacks in 565 pass blocking snaps (pressures allowed per dropback rate of 4.4%). Ramczyk has allowed just three sacks over the last two years, a total of 2,010 snaps. 

Ramczyk is on his fifth-year option at $11.064 million, so we’ll count him on his rookie deal. He’s the key toward Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston succeeding this season, as he’ll be responsible for keeping both quarterbacks upright. There isn’t a player more important on the Saints offense than Ramczyk in 2021 — and that includes Alvin Kamara. 

Buccaneers: Devin White, ILB

Player experience: Third season
How acquired: 2019 draft (First round, No. 5 overall)

The most tackles in a single game in Buccaneers postseason history? That honor belongs to White, who also owns the No. 2 and No. 3 spots on this list — and he’s only played three postseason games! White was a dominant force on Tampa Bay’s No. 1 ranked run defense in 2020 (Buccaneers allowed the fewest rushing yards, fewest rushing touchdowns, and fewest yards per carry allowed), finishing with 140 tackles, 16 quarterback hits, and nine sacks in 15 games. Keep in mind this was just his second season in the league, and White led the all inside linebackers in sacks and quarterback hits. 

White is the first player with 100-plus tackles and nine sacks in a season since 2012 and one of just four players with 200-plus tackles and 10-plus sacks in their first two seasons since 1982 (Brian Urlacher, Darius Leonard, Duane Bickett). He’s one of the best players on one of the league’s best defenses — and he still has two years left on his rookie deal. White is already one of the top inside linebackers in the game. 

Player experience: Fourth season
How acquired: 2018 draft (First round, No. 24 overall)

Hard to believe Moore is still on his rookie contract since he’s been one of the most productive wideouts in the league. Moore is fifth in receiving yards (2,368) among wide receivers over the last two seasons and he’s the only wide receiver with at least 1,200 scrimmage yards in each of the last two seasons. One of the biggest big-play threats in the league, Moore ranked third in the league with 18.1 yards per catch last season and his five receiving touchdowns of 50-plus yards are fourth amongst wide receivers over the last three years. 

Moore’s 3,156 career receiving yards rank seventh in NFL history for players aged 23 or younger — not bad for a player who just turned 24 in April. The Panthers still have Moore for another year on his rookie deal before his fifth-year option of $11.116 million kicks in — with a contract extension looming. Moore is expected to thrive in year two of Joe Brady’s offense, as a much improved deep-ball quarterback in Sam Darnold will be throwing passes his way.  

Player experience: Fourth season
How acquired: 2018 draft (First round, No. 26 overall)

Julio Jones is no longer on the Falcons, which leaves Atlanta fans wondering if Ridley is ready to take over as the No. 1 wide receiver. Fear not, Ridley was incredibly productive in the seven games Jones didn’t play last season, averaging 11.3 targets per game and 109.3 receiving yards per game — a season which he finished with 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging a career-high 15.3 yards per catch. He also finished fourth in the league in receiving yards per game (91.6).

Ridley is just one of six players with 3,000 receiving yards and 25 receiving touchdowns since entering the league in 2018 — joining Davante Adams, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Tyler Lockett, and Mike Evans in that category. Ridley’s 26 career receiving touchdowns rank first amongst the 2018 draft class and his 3,061 yards and 9.33 yards per target are only behind D.J. Moore. This is a year for Ridley to prove to the Falcons he’s a No. 1 wide receiver — with a huge contract extension lurking.