FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – When the Atlanta Falcons were in quarterback madness in the middle of March, Desmond Ridder paid attention from afar. The quarterback knew the Falcons might be a fit. He liked what he saw from coach Arthur Smith’s offense.
Then Atlanta traded stalwart starter Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts. They signed Marcus Mariota the same day. And all of a sudden, Ridder, as a draft prospect, thought to himself – maybe the Falcons could really be a possibility.
Ridder has long felt like his game and Mariota’s were similar. Mariota was a college quarterback Ridder admired growing up. So over a month before the Falcons drafted him in Round 3 on Friday night, the University of Cincinnati signal-caller thought he might end up a Falcon anyway.
“I didn’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth, but I’m like, man, like, you know, if they’re going to get [Mariota],” Ridder said. “Why not get a younger guy just like him? That’s obviously myself. So when they picked him up, that got me really excited for Atlanta.”
Soon after, the Falcons and Ridder met at Ridder’s pro day in Cincinnati, where Ridder, a Louisville native, even dug up a bobblehead of former Louisville Cardinals quarterback and current Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone. They spent a couple of hours together, with the Falcons' leadership even meeting Ridder’s mother. And even though it took until pick No. 74 on the second day of the draft, it finally happened.
And those comparisons with Mariota, they are apt -- which can help when you’re trying to create a game plan or construct an offense in general.
“The good thing, too, is that you’re playing with guys with similar skill sets,” Smith said. “When you’re putting game plans together, it is refreshing. A lot of times, you’ve got guys with very different skill sets, and you’re going to have to have a plan if this guy goes out, this is where we’re going to have to go.
“So they are both -- really, all three; Feleipe [Franks], too -- that part is nice. When you put together how we’re going to play, that part does help having similar skill sets.”
Mariota and Ridder are built similarly. They are both 6-foot-4 and of similar weight (215-220 pounds). They both are quarterbacks who can run – Mariota showed to be a willing runner when necessary as a starter with the Tennessee Titans under Smith, when he was the offensive coordinator there, and Ridder ran 110 times last season for 355 yards and six touchdowns.
They both have the ability to extend plays and have strong leadership qualities.
“They are both very athletic quarterbacks,” Smith said. “So, that’s a good thing, he’s looked up to Marcus, because it’ll be a really good room.”
How that ends up clarifying itself as the season goes on – whether Mariota remains the starting quarterback the entire season or Ridder is able to win the job at some point -- that’s an unknown right now. Smith said the best player will play. The Falcons have no long-term commitment to Mariota – he’s signed for only two seasons, and the contract is one that can be easy to get out of after 2022, if necessary. Ridder is a rookie who was taken in the third round, which doesn’t scream immediate starter.
Either way, the Falcons can create a similar plan, and if the past month said anything about the offense, Smith wants to build long term, whether it’s with Mariota, Ridder or someone who isn’t on the roster yet. He wants a quarterback who can move a little bit, and who can extend plays when necessary.
He wants a quarterback who makes smart decisions and has accuracy – traits he identified Tuesday as important ones to start with when analyzing quarterbacks. Atlanta believes Ridder, who completed 64.9% of his passes last season and 66.2% the season before, has that quality.
“Our athletic abilities, our leadership, our ability to extend plays and be smart with the ball. Once we do extend plays, I think that's something we do really well,” Ridder said. “Being able to use our legs to get outside the pocket, making an efficient throw. Not doing anything dumb with the ball and being able to protect yourself.
“You know, as this game is for longevity. So I think you know, the both of us do a really good job of that. And so, like I said, I'm excited to get down there to learn from someone who's been in the game for a long time and won a lot of games at the highest level.”
Ridder sees himself in the quarterback he’s coming to play with. It’s part of why he was so excited to come to Atlanta. There’s opportunity. There’s an obvious mentor.
And there’s the possibility for a strong future as the Falcons figure out, for the first time in more than a decade, what life without Ryan will be like.