The debate is a yearly one. Can a wide receiver who shows positive traits on film, but didn't produce at a high-level in college, go on to produce at that high level in the NFL?
There's a good amount of data to suggest that a player like this becoming All-Pro caliber wide receiver in the NFL is unlikely, but there have been outliers. Investigate those outliers and you will find a trend.
Those players don't produce at a crazy high level in college due to outside factors not normally seen on the college football landscape.
I'll give you a shining example: Michael Thomas.
Michael Thomas is currently one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, posting a historic catch rate this season to go along with nearly 1,400 receiving yards. Despite Thomas showing plus athleticism, burst in his route running and ideal length as a receiving prospect, he wasn't an ultra-productive wide receiver at Ohio State. Yes, he accumulated 9 touchdowns in consecutive years, but his career high for yardage in a season was just 799. His career high in receptions was just 56.
What was the cause of this "lack" of production? In Thomas' final season, Ohio State turned around and handed the ball off to this running back named Ezekiel Elliott 289 times. There was also a constant quarterback battle happening between J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. Those two, along with converted quarterback turned wide receiver Braxton Miller, combined for another 222 rushes.
511 rushing attempts between four major contributors on the offense.
There simply weren't enough footballs to go around. So, despite Michael Thomas leading the team in receptions by 20 and receiving touchdowns by 4, he failed to eclipse 800 yards on the year.
There have been other examples over the years of player's who radically increase their production upon entering the league.
Bills rookie wide receiver Robert Foster had more yards in a 5 game stretch this season than his entire career at Alabama.
Doug Baldwin had just 1,360 receiving yards in 43 collegiate games, he's now a two-time pro bowler closing in on 7,000 career yards in the NFL.
In his one season playing FBS football, Tyreek Hill was used as a gadget player and only accumulated 281 receiving yards. He now has over 3,000 receiving yards in the first three seasons in the NFL.
Each of these had their own unique set of circumstances as to why their production was so low, but there's a similar situation to Thomas' that has unfolding in Athens, Georgia this season.
It's no secret that the Georgia Bulldogs are one of the most talented teams in the country, especially at the offensive skill positions.
Running backs D'Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield, who will both eventually be starting running backs in the NFL, have combined for over 300 carries. The receiving core is even more loaded.
Riley Ridley, Terry Godwin, and Mecole Hardman are all future pros. Godwin has already accepted an invite to the East-West Shrine Game, while Hardman and Ridley are juniors that are likely to declare for the NFL Draft. Ridley is the leader of the group in both receptions (39) and touchdowns (9).
Ridley (Calvin's younger brother) has been tabbed by many evaluators, myself included, as one of the best wide receivers in the potential class. When you scout his film, his talent is so easy to see:
He seemingly has it all traits-wise.
There's the size at 6'2, the burst in his route running and the downfield ball skills to match his size. Weaknesses? Not many I can come up with.
But here's the issue: Riley Ridley is hovering around 500 receiving yards on the season. What gives?
That same issue that happened with Michael Thomas is happening to Ridley: there's just not that many targets to go around the offense. With droves of NFL talent at the offensive skill positions, Ridley has only mustered up 56 targets on the season.
Statistically, he's actually made the most of them.
Ridley's 39 receptions on the season means his catch rate is 69.6%. For comparison sake, the leader in receiving yards in the country is Andy Isabella of UMASS, who has a catch rate of 69.1%.
Ridley's 509 yards on the season means quarterbacks' average 9.1 yards every time they throw his way. Senior Bowl invite Tyre Brady of Marshall only averages 7.4 yards per target.
Ridley has scored 9 touchdowns, or one every 6.2 targets. Highly productive AJ Brown from Ole Miss has scored a touchdown once every 19.1 targets.
Lastly, Ridley has converted 21 first downs among his 56 targets. Anthony Johnson from Buffalo has converted 24, on 80 targets.
When seeing Ridley's film, the traits are obviously positive. When his "lack" of production is given proper context, his statistics are positive too.
His tape and collegiate situation show that he likely falls under the "outlier" section of production thresholds. Trust that tape and you'll see what I already know, Riley Ridley is a stud.