The Atlanta Falcons have found themselves heavily scrutinized this offseason for their decision to stick with Desmond Ridder as their starting quarterback, despite the potential to pursue alternative options. Despite this criticism, the fan base’s expectations are fairly optimistic about the team’s chances to win the NFC South and make the playoffs.
Yet, the scrutiny is understandable to a certain extent. After all, Ridder was selected in the third round of last year’s draft and the list of third-round quarterbacks that have started and won a playoff game over the past two decades is very short. Most third-round quarterbacks tend to turn out as career backups like Chris Redman or barely see the field like Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone.
But Ridder’s draft status is vastly overrated, leading many—too many to name—to think the Falcons are making a massive gamble by sticking with him. However, I think the Falcons' trust in Ridder is a much better bet than what many fans, media personalities, and analysts would have you believe. That is due to Ridder possessing many of the necessary traits that we see in most successful young quarterbacks.
As I see it, the biggest challenge upon entering the NFL for quarterbacks is decision-making. The sheer amount of information that is put on a quarterback’s plate every snap can be overwhelming. The overall better quality of competition in the pros exponentially increases the speed of the game. That, coupled with the potential of facing defensive schemes and coverages that a young signal-caller has never seen before, makes adjusting to the pro game extremely difficult.
However, we’ve seen passers like Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow produce early on despite these potential pitfalls. Their anomalous success sets an unrealistic expectation for everyone else to follow. In reality, most quarterbacks are likelier to follow the paths forged by Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts should they find success in the NFL. The latter two were quarterbacks that started off relatively slow and improved year after year.
At least statistically, Ridder’s first four starts at the end of the 2022 season should be considered a very promising start to his career. His 86.4 passer rating across those games is better than that of Allen (61.0) and Hurts (77.2) during their first four starts in the NFL. In fact, Ridder’s rating is comparable to Burrow’s 89.4 rating that he had in his first four starts. The decision to stick by Ridder would be considerably harder for the Falcons if his performance had been significantly worse.
Ridder’s advanced processing and improving accuracy provide a strong platform for success
Yet in addition to a good statistical start, Ridder also shows that he possesses the necessary on-field traits to succeed in the NFL. That begins with the aforementioned decision-making. Ridder’s ability to process defenses at a rapid rate will be his most potent asset in the NFL. However, it is often overlooked by his critics because it’s not the sort of thing that will make highlight reels. He showcased that quick decision-making immediately in his first two starts last year, even if his statistical production was down against the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t make mental mistakes in those games; he absolutely did. But those errors were heavily outweighed by the number of smart decisions he made deciphering all the ways that Saints and Ravens defenses were trying to attack him.
In fact, Ridder showed better processing than his predecessor Marcus Mariota, who has 74 career starts in the NFL. Ridder immediately showing greater anticipation than Mariota is not a knock on the latter, but rather speaks to the former’s advanced skills. So the biggest hurdle for a young quarterback involving decision-making has already been crossed with Ridder. Next, we can go from his biggest strength to perhaps his greatest weakness, which comes with concerns about Ridder’s accuracy.
Spotty ball placement was the most common criticism of Ridder’s film during his collegiate days at Cincinnati. But to his credit, Ridder did improve his accuracy significantly during his final year in college. Coupled with the reality that in today’s NFL, accuracy concerns aren’t as glaring a red flag as they once were when evaluating quarterbacks. That was put at the forefront of the most recent draft cycle thanks to Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, who was selected fourth overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Accuracy concerns were also something that Allen dealt with early in his career, but again, he was a player that improved with development.
The fact that Ridder has already shown the ability to improve his accuracy in college means that it’s realistic to think that trend will continue in the NFL. That conclusion echoes something Ben Solak wrote a year ago for The Ringer before Ridder was drafted:
Accuracy isn’t a problem for Ridder—it’s just the weakest part of his game. And while accuracy is certainly important, Ridder’s ball placement comfortably clears the bar that we should expect of an NFL quarterback.
Ridder’s creativity and ability to handle pressure are big plusses
So now we can move on to the next part of his evaluation as a young quarterback, which is the ability to create “second-reaction” or “off-structure” plays. Creativity is essential to the success of a young quarterback in today’s NFL, owing to the aforementioned issues with decision-making.
Decisions in the NFL must be made within split seconds, where the difference between getting rid of the ball in 2.5 and 3.0 seconds can mean the difference between a 20-yard completion and a 10-yard loss on a sack. For young quarterbacks that take longer to process info, the ability to buy more time outside the pocket using their legs is crucial. Yet again I will remind you that this issue is less critical for an advanced processor like Ridder than it would be for a typical quarterback entering the league. Yet, Ridder still possesses this off-structure ability and showcased it, especially in his final 2022 start versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
His ability to extend plays and find open receivers like Drake London, MyCole Pruitt, and Anthony Firkser on critical downs is a big reason why he had a nearly perfect passer rating of 155.8 on third and fourth downs against Tampa Bay. And before it’s brought up in the comments below, it should be noted that Ridder’s passer rating was in fact a perfect 158.3 on those critical downs while the Bucs still had their defensive starters in during the first half.
That ability to escape the pocket also comes in handy when it comes to dealing with pressure, another pitfall that often befalls young quarterbacks upon entering the NFL. Yet, Ridder easily overcame that issue in his four starts, evidenced by the fact that he was PFF’s highest-graded passer while under pressure in 2022. He earned a 76.7 grade as a passer, beating out fellow rookie Kenny Pickett’s 69.2 grade, as well as Allen and Mahomes’ 72.9 and 68.9, respectively.
All of this is not to say that Ridder is a slam dunk to succeed in the NFL, nor guaranteed to reach the heights of players like Mahomes or Allen. Climbing that mountain is not easy and there will be plenty of challenges he’ll need to conquer in the future. However, his ability to overcome them will depend heavily on the environment that head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot construct around him.
It essentially boils down to the age-old nature versus nurture debate that not only applies to the development of a child, but to that of a quarterback as well. I’ve already illustrated many of the reasons why it is within Ridder’s nature to become a good quarterback. How good a quarterback will likely boil down to Atlanta being a nurturing environment.
Falcons’ 2023 offseason moves should foster Ridder’s success
That’s why it’s important to examine all the endeavors the Falcons have made this offseason to cultivate a supportive infrastructure around their young quarterback. One such endeavor was solidifying the offensive line via the extensions for right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary, along with the selection of future left guard Matthew Bergeron in the second round of the draft.
Seeing the strong connection between Ridder and London during the final month of 2022 should spark optimism that Ridder can forge something similar with tight end Kyle Pitts in 2023. They never got that chance last year due to Pitts suffering a season-ending injury a few weeks ahead of Ridder’s debut. Yet it stands to reason that Ridder and Pitts’ connection will be considerably better than the latter’s with Mariota. Not to mention, the pickups of running back Bijan Robinson and tight end Jonnu Smith bring even more dynamic weapons to the offense.
The Falcons’ offensive foundation will be a steady ground game, a formula the team successfully used when a young Matt Ryan was handing the ball off to Michael Turner way back in 2008. The Falcons’ 2022 rushing attack was already extremely productive with Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson spearheading things, and now adding Robinson could push them to even greater heights. These are all the factors that should allow the Falcons' offense to go from a low simmer a year ago to a rolling boil this season.
Time will tell if the Falcons achieve their goals with Ridder at the helm, but there is clear evidence that the team is making a very calculated decision in sticking with him. This is not as big a gamble as many would suggest. Unfortunately, most that would tell you otherwise really haven’t watched Ridder that closely. Their only data point is which round he was picked.
But it should be clear that Ridder has plenty of things going for him that third-rounders like Redman and Ragone lacked. Instead, Ridder may have more in common with the rare successful third-rounder like Russell Wilson. That will bear out on the field later this year, but the Falcons and their fanbase are justified in their optimism.