Since 2000, four quarterbacks have been chosen in the third round of the NFL Draft and ascended to long-term starting status.
Super Bowl winners Russell Wilson and Nick Foles join former Falcons QB Matt Schaub and journeyman extraordinaire Josh McCown in quarterbacks who have overcome their draft status and become notable figures in the league. Most quarterbacks taken since 2000 in this round have gotten some starting experience at some point, but positioned themselves as stop-gap starters at best and backups on average.
When the Falcons drafted Desmond Ridder this past draft cycle, it created an expectation that he’d at least get a chance showing what he’s got during what most assumed would be an extremely down year for the franchise.
Through seven weeks, the Falcons have done something that most people didn’t expect they’d do, They’ve become competitive. They’ve become so competitive in such a precarious division that they should reasonably compete for the NFC South title and the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2017.
Even though Sunday’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals wasn’t fun, it’s going to be a bit of a wash in the grand scheme of things. Cincy is coming off a conference title and near Super Bowl win. Atlanta was missing most of its secondary and couldn’t get the run game going after six weeks of spectacular, uninterrupted success. The Bengals were just the better team at home. Life goes on.
Though, the game in Cincinnati proved an underlying theme of this season: if you can stop the Falcons’ run game, you stop the Falcons. While Marcus Mariota has had a commendable year under center by all accounts after wandering in the NFL wilderness for a few yars, his limited production in the passing game will hinder his long-term prospects starting in the NFL. Arthur Smith’s offense has been inspired in Year 2, but it’s not able to really factor in the passing attack he became noted for in Tennessee with the Titans. Sure, the Titans had Derrick Henry, but they also aired it out a good bit with Ryan Tannehill.
While Tannehill isn’t Dan Marino or anything, he has been the more productive passer than Mariota, and does have a stronger arm. Smith has been jamming the run game down his opponents’ throats whenever possible in part because that’s what he loves, and in part because of Mariota’s limitations in the passing game. You could argue the offensive line’s pass protection is being hidden by this shift to primarily running, but a more pass-happy quarterback likely opens up the playbook and gets fantasy football people off the team’s back for the limited use of Kyle Pitts, no that the last piece really matters.
Ridder may or may not be the long-term answer at quarterback for the Falcons. It’s been long-thought that, eventually this year, the Cincinnati alum would supplant Mariota on the depth chart and get meaningful snaps at quarterback. That’s not to say that this won’t happen, but with the schedule softening and the division still up for grabs, will it?
The tricky situation the Falcons are in right now is what to do with Ridder. Does the team find an avenue this season to organically put him into the lineup? Does it even want to? Does the team feel that Mariota gives them the best chance to win now, and feel that a playoff berth now is worth letting Ridder ride the bench to avoid his rookie learning curve?
The team’s prospects for 2023 suddenly look quite promising with a young, feisty roster, vastly improved coaching and a windfall of cap space about to hit for free agency. IIt won’t all be for naught if the team can’t find a quarterback who will allow the team’s last two first-round picks (Pitts, Drake London) to factor more heavily into the offense, but it will stymie offensive improevment. As they are, the Falcons are tough to play against because of their stout rushing attack. With a dynamic passing attack to compliment that, they could have one of the best offenses in the NFL.
Can Ridder be the guy? Only the team can have a faint idea of that at this point. Can they safely let him have a year to develop and turn to him next fall? It’s a risk that recent history argues is not in the team’s favor. Traditionally, quarterbacks taken at this point in the draft don’t turn into long-term starters. It’s not to say Ridder can’t, but the sooner you get an idea of what he can give you, the better.
It’s why, despite all the well-earned good vibes around this franchise that only should grow in the time ahead, it makes you a little leery as to what the plan at quarterback is. The team’s unexpected competitive streak this fall and potential for playoff status is great for the franchise from a morale and business standpoint. You can bet that owner Arthur Blank won’t be against hosting a playoff game in his beautiful, new-ish stadium for the first time.
With the way things are going, it’s going to take an injury or some lousy performances against some bad teams from Mariota for him to be benched. With his status as a captain and the respect he’s commanding in the locker room, Smith knows he can’t just yank him out of the starting lineup. He may not want to, either. The Falcons may not see a team as good as Cincinnati for the rest of the season with how things are shaping up, and they’ve been able to stay competitive in every game this year besides Sunday’s with Mariota.
Ridder, while so tantalizing in preseason reps, is still a mystery. He could get a start under any number of circumstances and never look back, living up to the promise we saw from him in August right away. He could not play a single down this year. He may never start for the Falcons as their quarterback while he’s in an Atlanta uniform.
It’s hard to peg exactly what the future is for Ridder with the Falcons, but as the midway point of the season looms and Atlanta becoming an unexpectedly competitive outfit, the assumption that Ridder would start at some point seems to be shifting into more of a question.
Ridder is not Patrick Mahomes. He’s probably not just going to get a free year to grow before taking his natural mantle under center as a starting quarterback. The Falcons are going to have to yank Mariota out of the lineup inorganically to try to mount more of a passing attack, or they’re going to ride Mariota through the rest of 2022 and see if he can gut out a playoff berth before letting him compete for the job again next year.
The Falcons quarterback next fall might be someone completely unexpected. With the way the team is playing, it probably won’t be one of the draft’s more ballyhooed prospects. With how teams logically make transitions at QB, it really may not be Ridder right now. We have no guarantees it’ll be Ridder ever.
It makes you anxious to get reps now as opposed to later, but don’t hold your breath. Right or wrong, it seems less and less likely as the season goes on that Ridder will be a starter for Atlanta this year. If it means we wait for next fall or just never see this happen at all, the team’s newfound competitiveness might delay (or altogether prevent) Ridder time in Atlanta.
We’re just along for the ride, whatever the strange or familiar places that come along with it.