While it’s never ideal to not have complete stability at the most important position on an NFL roster, you can’t discount progress from a young player when figuring out your future. That’s where the Falcons stand in 2023. For all the chaos and uncertainty at quarterback last year, they finished the season feeling encouraged about their young gunslinger.
Desmond Ridder produced two commendable performances to end the season following multiple difficult road matchups to start his NFL career. His poise, pocket awareness, and decisiveness must be acknowledged.
For all his success, there is still plenty to ponder from an organizational standpoint. Is Ridder an ideal fit to make Arthur Smith’s offense one of the most prolific units in the league? Can he maximize the game-changing capabilities of Kyle Pitts and Drake London? Will his timing be on point in an offense that uses play action more than most teams?
These are some of the questions that weren’t going to be fully answered in four games. That’s what the coaching staff and front office will assess when looking at a potentially crowded quarterback market and enticing draft class.
Ridder’s resilience and intelligence shined the most in his four games at quarterback. No matter the dire circumstances and lack of a supporting cast, the third-round rookie remained determined to manufacture drives and put the team in a position to win. Unfortunate mistakes and horrendous officiating cost the team in crucial moments against Baltimore and New Orleans. That never stopped Ridder from pushing the Falcons to win with his command in and out of the pocket.
After a shaky start against New Orleans, he regained his composure and showcased what made him beloved in college. Ridder responded from adversity to make the necessary plays to get his playmakers the ball. While it wasn’t pretty at times, based on not throwing the ball particularly accurately or running right into pressure, there were noticeable changes in how Ridder was more decisive and made better decisions.
As my colleague Cory Woodroof eloquently wrote following his performance against one of the premier defenses in the league in Baltimore, he didn’t flinch when under duress or put in third-and-long situations. He continued to show valuable traits to be a starting quarterback in the league, including building a strong rapport with London.
Improved pocket movement, excellent anticipation on throws, and extra velocity on tight windows were the biggest highlights from the final two wins of the season. Ridder showed command in the pocket, which the Falcons lacked for most of the season. His ability to make plays out of structure, throwing accurately on the move, led to multiple impressive third-down conversions.
Many young quarterbacks can believe in their arm to make tight-window throws, which leads to careless decisions. That wasn’t the case for Ridder in four games, as he showed the maturity to create time to make precise reads to put together scoring drives. There is a real sense of maturity from listening to his interviews and reading quotes. The former Bearcat is a born leader, who has the drive to get better consistently. That speaks volumes about a team building an identity around playing hard-nosed, disciplined football.
Options must be considered and pursued
As impressive Ridder played at times in four starts, not adding another quarterback would be a puzzling decision by the Falcons. Marcus Mariota has played himself out of Atlanta. The way his tenure in Atlanta unraveled leaves further frustration about how long the coaching staff committed to him as a starter. There was no logic behind keeping him as the starter after the Thursday night debacle in Carolina. This picture exemplifies how Mariota was no longer capable of being the starter.
Nevertheless, the coaching staff kept him in there and stunted Ridder’s opportunity to prove his capabilities as a starter. That leaves the front office in a position where they have to bring in someone to legitimately compete with Ridder or be ready to step in if he unravels. For all the buzz about his recent performances, it does come against a broken Arizona team and a Tampa Bay defense playing mostly backups as the starters await their home playoff game against Dallas. Multiple unforced fumbles have to be mentioned about Ridder’s performances as well.
The most realistic player that comes to mind is Ryan Tannehill. It seems rather likely Tennessee decides to move on from him this off-season. There’s no questioning Tannehill’s track record with Smith after memorable 2019 and 2020 seasons. The veteran quarterback has spoken very highly about his coaching qualities and leadership traits.
All the pieces align if he becomes available, similar to how it was for Mariota. The major difference is obviously Tannehill has played at a high level in the NFL and can guide a team to success with an array of playmakers and solidified offensive line. The Falcons aren’t quite there yet, but they are moving in the right direction on having enough capable pass-catchers and a well-rounded offensive line in pass protection. Everyone knows they have the running game to punish any opposing front with a tremendous running back room and dynamic formation versatility.
Given how many positional needs remain on the roster, it would be shocking if the team drafted a quarterback in the first three rounds. That will leave them deciding on capable veteran quarterbacks, barring a blockbuster dream move to acquire Lamar Jackson. It’s documented the front office isn’t shy about trying to do it all to trade for a franchise quarterback, albeit an extremely problematic one who played like a below-average player this season. In the most likelihood, Tannehill or Jimmy Garoppolo would be the best likely candidates to push Ridder in a quarterback battle or give the team a chance to compete if he isn’t good enough to play at a high level in the NFL.
Preparing for an exciting future of possibilities
By having the third most cap space in 2023, the Falcons are gearing up to make plenty of upgrades across their roster. The NFC South couldn’t be more for the taking at the moment, given the combination of aging and rebuilding teams.
Adding players across the board defensively and a few positions on the offensive line and wide receiver will be considered the top priorities. How Terry Fontenot works with Smith to determine the best step to take at the quarterback position will play a significant factor in the Falcons’ trajectory.
Ridder deserves an opportunity to lead the team going into 2023, but there needs to be a definitive alternative as a backup plan to keep the team competitive next season. The Falcons are currently in their longest playoff drought in over 30 years. While next year isn’t exactly a make-or-break season for Smith and Fontenot, the goal should be to have a winning record at the minimum.
There’s no telling how good the NFC will be. The standard should be to play football with playoff stakes in January. Providing Ridder with a much-improved supporting cast but also giving the team assurances with a veteran quarterback should be how the Falcons look to build a playoff-caliber team in 2023.