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Post-2023 NFL Draft Falcons roster review: Quarterback

It’s the Desmond Ridder show, for 2023 and perhaps beyond.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

For all the radical transformation this Atlanta Falcons roster has undergone, quarterback was noteworthy for how little the top of the depth chart changed. Desmond Ridder is, as anticipated at the end of last year, the starter for this time, and both Logan Woodside and Feleipe Franks are still lurking in the roster’s unfinished basement. The only major change is that Taylor Heinicke has been added as the backup, with Marcus Mariota cut and off to Philadelphia.

That has led to an offseason of strife in this fanbase—what else is new—over whether riding with Ridder was ridiculous or ridiculously clever. After the NFL Draft saw the team add zero quarterbacks aside from a rookie minicamp invite for former Appalachian State signal caller Chase Brice, the state of the depth chart is pretty clear. This will be Ridder until the wheels fall off, with Heinicke here in case the wheels fall off.

Now that we know that for certain—there’s always the possibility of a summer trade, but I think that’s only realistic if Ridder falls flat—it’s a fine time to kick off our post-draft roster review with quarterback.

Starter: Desmond Ridder

2022 stats: 71/155 (63.5%) for 708 yards, 2 touchdowns, 6.2 yards per attempt; 16 rushes for 64 yards and 4.0 yards per attempt

We (and I include myself in that we prominently) set a huge number of hours on fire arguing over whether Ridder would occupy this role in 2023 when it seemed fairly obvious he would all along, thanks to rumors of interest in Lamar Jackson, draft-eligible quarterbacks, and anyone not named Desmond Ridder. Now he has to prove the opportunity is warranted and that he belongs as the team’s franchise quarterback.

To do so, Ridder will need to become a more consistent player than the sometimes jittery quarterback we saw in that brief four game audition at the end of the 2022 season. Ridder’s biggest miscues were missed throws in the first couple of games, poor decision-making out of the pocket at times, and some issues with pressure, all of which followed him into the NFL to some extent from college. The best you could say about his four game stint is that it got better as it went on, but two pretty solid games against a pair of teams buttoning up their seasons wasn’t enough to convince anyone who didn’t already believe in Ridder.

There were also strengths, naturally, or the Falcons would not be betting on him now. Ridder made small but noticeable strides in each of his four games and had moments where his mobility, arm, and decision-making stood out. It’s worth remembering that many analysts liked Ridder a lot last year in the run-up to the NFL Draft and that he was a rumored first round pick, with The Ringer’s Ben Solak noting that he does most things well, if not spectacularly.

At the NFL level, Ridder’s upside is a bit of an unknown quantity because we’ve seen so little of him, but the Falcons are investing in those strengths and Ridder’s oft-cited intangibles, like his leadership skills and work ethic. They’re betting that a full season of development, an offseason as the starter, and the right supporting cast and coaching staff can make him the best version of himself, which is a quarterback who is at least good enough to win with and perhaps much more than that. I like the bet, personally, but it is still a bet.

Ridder has a golden opportunity here to show he can pilot a really good offense and put an offseason of doubt both within the fanbase and within the national media to rest. We just have to wait a few months to see if he has made those kind of 6 yastrides.

Backup: Taylor Heinicke

2022 stats: 161/259 (63.9%) for 1,859 yards, 12 touchdowns and 6 interceptions on 6.9 yards per attempt; 28 rushes for 96 yards and 1 touchdown on 4.8 yards per attempt

If Ridder falters or gets hurt at some point, Heinicke is the insurance policy.

Heinicke made 24 starts over the past two seasons for Washington, showing a willingness (if not always an ability) to air it out deep, consistently solid work as a passer, and enough mobility to cause defenses problems when he wants to. He’s no better than a slightly below average starter over the course of his career, but Heinicke is good enough to keep you in games so long as the rest of your roster isn’t a disaster. The Falcons saw him beat them twice in the past two years and thought enough of that work to bring him aboard, and his solid all-around game makes him a player the Falcons will be comfortable relying on in a pinch.

Heinicke made it clear he’s here to be the backup, but the good news is that if the Falcons need him, he’s capable and experienced enough to hold down the fort for an offense that is going to lean heavily on the run. It’s a solid 1-2 punch, and if Ridder locks down the starting job, Heinicke is a fairly affordable backup these next two seasons.

Roster hopefuls: Feleipe Franks, Logan Woodside

Franks has made the switch full-time to tight end, but the Falcons and Arthur Smith still clearly like him as a versatile weapon. If the roster truly is more difficult to make this year, Franks may be on the outs, but he’s survived for two seasons despite showing little besides some summer promise and in-season blocking ability, and Smith is probably hoping he’s able to step into a larger role. I have him penciled in as the fourth tight end and third quarterback.

Woodside may hit the practice squad as a quarterback with experience in Smith’s offense should injury arise, with Franks being more of an emergency in-game option if it came to that. If either of these players throw more than five passes this year, the Falcons are in big trouble.

Outlook: Unknown

We really don’t know how Ridder is going to fare, which makes what lies ahead uncertain and a little nerve-wracking. What we do know is that the Falcons are going to give him the chance to prove he can, for a short time or a long time, be this team’s starting quarterback, and that they’ve built the caliber of roster they think he can win with. They’re saying draft status be damned and four game sample size be darned, the Falcons are going to bet on him.

Uncertainty is just part and parcel of what the team has built here; we have to see Ridder excel before all but the most ardent Ridder critter will declare his future with this team settled. It’s easy to believe, as I do, that Ridder’s quality all-around game and the team’s faith will translate into a pretty good season, but whether he plays well enough to help lift this offense to greatness and himself to a more permanent place atop the depth chart remains to be seen. If you think his success or failure is predetermined, so be it, but the reality is that Ridder’s improvement or lack thereof, the strength of his supporting cast, and Arthur Smith’s ability to create an offense that plays to his best traits will all play a part in telling the story.

If Ridder thrives—or even if he’s just pretty good—this offense is going to hum and the Falcons will likely move ahead with him as their long-term starter. If he doesn’t, the Falcons have a fallback option this year but many questions to come about how they’ve handled quarterback to this point and how they’ll fix it going forward. Atlanta’s confidence in Ridder is inspiring,