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Rookie Desmond Ridder Must Start For Atlanta Falcons During the 2022 Campaign

Brent SobleskiJune 20, 2022

AP Photo/John Bazemore

Desmond Ridder sat slumped over while clearly overwhelmed by a moment he didn't quite expect during NFL draft weekend. Bleacher Report's top-rated quarterback prospect in the 2022 class fell all the way to the 74th overall pick.

"It shouldn't have took this long," the quarterback told Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot. "They done f--ked up. I ain't even gonna lie."

The moment can fuel the fire within the individual while simultaneously meaning nothing to his new organization this season.

Yes, Ridder became a third-round selection. He shouldn't be handed anything. He'll need to earn his spot in the lineup. At the same time, the Falcons are clearly in a rebuilding phase, and letting Ridder gain significant starting experience this fall will help determine which direction the franchise should take next offseason.

Before the draft even began, a consensus materialized. This year's quarterback crop was the weakest in recent memory. The outcome of the event confirmed as much when Kenny Pickett became the lowest QB1 drafted since Jim Druckenmiller in 1997. Pickett was the only one among his position group to even hear his name called during the opening two frames.

Slowly, picks ticked by and everyone became curious where the rest of the quarterbacks would fall. Ultimately, Ridder turned into QB2 despite sliding all the way into the third frame, and that's exactly how the Falcons should view him.

An opportunity arose to land a talented player at the game's most important position for a reduced price, and Fontenot took advantage. Considering the team's current uncertainty under center with only Marcus Mariota standing in Ridder's way, the Falcons should give Ridder every chance to emerge as the starter and possibly reap significant rewards.

B/R scout Nate Tice wrote the following as part of the quarterback's evaluation:

"Overall, Ridder is a competitive player who showed a leap in improvement throughout the 2021 season. He’s athletic but doesn’t just rely on his legs to make plays happen and constantly showed an advanced understanding of Cincinnati’s offense with his pre- and post-snap operation. His ability to operate from the pocket with his polished movement and balance, while still maintaining the athleticism to create plays when things break down, is a fun package.

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"Ridder is able to operate on time and has the arm strength to drive throws and balls to the field, which allows him to attack all areas of the defense. His main blemish is some inaccurate throws at the beginning of games when he seems to be too amped up. But he settles in as the game goes along and is a player who steps up in big moments. Ridder shows enough advanced play that he can start for an NFL team as a rookie. He’s not a perfect prospect and might take some knocks early as he steps up a level in competition."

At Cincinnati, the two-time American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year served as a culture-changer. The three-year team captain's maturity helped elevate the entire program and led the Bearcats as College Football Playoff participants to a level no other Group of Five program previously experienced.

As a performer, his understanding of concepts, where to go with the ball and how he ultimately navigates the pocket to work the scheme made him a favorite among tape hounds. Those aspects have already started to translate to an NFL practice field.

"He's light-years ahead of most other young quarterbacks from the neck up," head coach Arthur Smith told reporters. "I will give him that compliment."

Today's game, particularly at the collegiate level, trends toward run-pass options and an oversimplification of schemes in order for recruits to play at a younger age and faster once they're on the field. Certain situations don't evolve past that point, hence why Liberty's Malik Willis and Ole Miss' Matt Corral heard their names called after Pickett and Ridder.

An NFL playbook hasn't been an insurmountable task for the Falcons rookie, though. Instead, he's adapted rather well from a mental standpoint.

"He's very intelligent," Smith said before adding, "Clearly he's got to continue to improve ... but behind the scenes there are things he has done that have impressed me as a rookie."

None of this should come as a surprise. Ridder called his shot even before finding a new home in Atlanta.

"I talked to a team who interviewed Ridder, who said that he had a plan outlined for how he was gonna beat out a veteran in a training camp setting and become a starter in this league Year 1," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported at the beginning of April.

As for Ridder's natural tools, the Cincinnati product flaunts one of the best athletic profiles of any quarterback since the NFL started publicly posting combine results. In fact, his 4.52-second 40-yard dash ranks fourth-best and 10'7" broad jump is tied for second-best (first if you take into consideration that Brad Smith converted to wide receiver) during that span.

Clearly, Ridder is a mobile quarterback. After all, he ran for 2,180 yards and 28 touchdowns during his collegiate career. But he's more of a linear quarterback who's best utilized on designed runs instead of creating outside of structure. Still, his athleticism can be leveraged within an offense.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

"We have some athletic quarterbacks, so we're going to try to play to our strengths," Smith said.

Yet Ridder's ability to work from the pocket and layer throws is what separated him from the majority of his classmates. According to Pro Football Focus, Ridder's 131.4 passer rating on deep throws (20 or more yards), as well as 73 deep passes without a turnover-worthy throw, both led major college football last season. His overall percentage of accurate passes finished fourth among draft eligible quarterbacks.

A third-round pick isn't perfect, of course. His concentration over the last two seasons, while working with personal quarterback coach Jordan Palmer, is marrying his lower-body mechanics to his throwing motion. Consistency with the right fundamentals helps create a more accurate passer over time.

"The main thing is working from my feet. That's where a quarterback starts, especially with your throwing motion," Ridder told The Athletic's Josh Kendall. “Make sure everything's staying balanced, staying level, when my weight transfers too far back or too far forward and over-striding as well."

The situation in which a player is placed factors considerably into his future success or failures. In Ridder's case, the Falcons became the perfect landing spot.

"Ridder has a chance," a front office executive told The Athletic's Mike Sando. "He has some mobility, he has some leadership and command to him. He is not plug-and-play, but he has some grit and determination to him that is probably similar to what they felt with Ryan Tannehill when Arthur Smith was with Tennessee."

The Tannehill comparison and its obvious connection to Smith—who previously served as the Titans play-caller—came up often throughout the predraft process, even from Ridder himself.

"In meetings with teams, in fact, I'm told he's compared himself to Titans QB Ryan Tannehill," Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reported, "which, of course, is different from someone calling himself the next [Tom] Brady."

AP Photo/John Bazemore

Furthermore, Ridder and Mariota present similar athletic profiles and overall skill sets. The latter certainly isn't viewed as the long-term solution after signing a two-year deal that essentially makes the seven-year veteran a bridge option. Atlanta can easily get out of Mariota's deal next season when his salary-cap hit escalates to $14.5 million with only $2.5 million owed if released, per Spotrac. For now, Mariota has the inside track to start because he is the veteran option with previous experience in the system and with the coaching staff. Although, the door remains wide-open for Ridder to take the job.

"As with any position, the best guy is going to play," Smith said after the draft, per Kendall. "With Marcus being the veteran, that's the way it'll go for now."

Realistically, nothing but a previous working relationship exists to warrant Mariota starting the majority of games this fall. Even in that instance, he lost the job to Tannehill after starting six contests in 2019. He hasn't made a start during the last two seasons. Even though he's only 28 years old and the 2015 second overall pick, Mariota never developed into the type of quarterback who's capable of carrying and elevating an offense.

The Falcons, meanwhile, lay claim to one of the league's worst rosters. The organization is obviously in transition after trading Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts. Ridder has the physical tools and mental makeup to start as a rookie. Plus, he should be given time to grow alongside Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Pitts and this year's eighth overall draft pick, wide receiver Drake London.

Draft status is just a number. Ridder brings enough potential to expedite the Falcons' progression from one era to the next. But he must be given a chance to do so this season.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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