PHOENIX – Desmond Ridder will enter prep for the 2023 season the same way he ended last year – as the Falcons starting quarterback.
Taylor Heinicke said as much after he signed a two-year deal with Atlanta, stating in no uncertain terms that he was here to be Ridder's backup.
Head coach Arthur Smith made it official on Tuesday morning at the NFL owners meetings, saying that Ridder would start training camp as QB1.
"The plan is to start Desmond," Smith said. "That's our plan going forward right now."
That isn't a shock at this stage, despite the fact the Falcons were careful to leave the matter open to this point in the offseason. GM Terry Fontenot said at the NFL combine that the Falcons plans had been communicated to Ridder, a Cincinnati product taken No. 74 overall in last year's NFL draft, so there would be no surprises by actions moving forward.
That included the addition of a veteran quarterback. Heinicke's a savvy all-gas-no-brakes player with tons of starting experience. While competition within the position group will remain, Ridder will have an opportunity to work with the first unit and prove worthy of the starting gig.
"We're very excited to have Taylor in the room, a guy with experience who has won games in this league," Smith said. "The chemistry in the quarterback room is important, as we expect Desmond to take the next step. But we also have a guy who can go in and win you football games and be ready to play."
Ridder made a solid impression during his first four NFL starts, completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 717 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Falcons went 2-2 in his starts, including a comeback victory over Arizona. He showed steady progress during his time playing, clearly learning from experiences good and bad while developing both physically and mentally.
"I thought he made significant improvement from each start," Smith said. "We expect him to make another leap this offseason. There are always things you can work on, with lower body mechanics. He can get more comfortable – when you don't change systems that helps, too. We expect significant growth from him."
Ridder never looked overwhelmed by the moment, even in a debut on the road in New Orleans. He showed a strong connection with fellow rookie Drake London and it will be interesting to see how well he pairs with Kyle Pitts, who was on injured reserve with a knee injury before Ridder took the reins. Ridder inspired confidence throughout his time as the starter, which helped the Falcons feel comfortable with him moving into the 2023 campaign.
"I wouldn't say there was an 'a-ha' moment, but there were a lot of pressure situations we put him in," Smith said. "How he operated on third down in the games he played give you a chance. He made some big-time throws. We're excited about him."
That doesn't completely eliminate the Falcons from drafting another quarterback in 2022, but it would seem less likely that they use the No. 8 overall selection on one. The Falcons haven't been involved in big quarterback opportunities to this point. They didn't chase after Derek Carr and reportedly won’t be involved in a Lamar Jackson pursuit.
They have chosen instead to see what Ridder can do while using free agent funds to build up the team around Ridder and improve on the defensive side of the ball.
They gave Heinicke premium money for a backup quarterback, reportedly a two-year deal worth up to $14.7 million, with $6.320 million guaranteed. That's a solid insurance policy should Ridder struggle or get hurt. It's also possible that Ridder thrives and Heinicke never plays a regular-season snap.
There's a real belief that Ridder can be the guy, which stems from his in-game performance and what the Falcons learned even before bringing him to Atlanta.
"We had confidence when we drafted him," Smith said. "There's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. The most important thing is to play in a game and go out and do it. But the way he can operate, how quickly he can make a decision, you have to do that really quick back there when you play quarterback in this league."
Join us as we take a look at our 2023 free agency additions to the Atlanta Falcons roster.