Falcons’ Arthur Smith: ‘The plan is obviously to start Desmond’

PHOENIX — It’s official: Desmond Ridder is the starting quarterback for the Falcons.

Coach Arthur Smith acknowledged as much Tuesday while speaking at the NFL owners meeting. The second-year player from Cincinnati sits atop the depth chart, and the team plans to move forward into its offseason and eventual 2023 preseason preparations with Ridder as QB1.

“The plan is obviously to start Desmond,” Smith said. “That’s our plan going forward right now.”

Ridder went 2-2 in four starts at the end of the 2022 season but was not officially named the starter during the offseason. Free-agent signee Taylor Heinicke defeated the Falcons as a member of the Commanders last season.

There were also constant rumors about the possibility of former league MVP Lamar Jackson coming to Atlanta, but the team decided not to extend an offer. The Ravens quarterback is seeking a trade.

“I’m always going to focus on us,” Smith said. “I don’t want to speculate about guys that are not on our roster.”

The Falcons went into last season with Marcus Mariota as the starter, trying to revive his career. The roles will reverse, with Ridder as the starter and the veteran Heinicke as the backup.

“Obviously, we are very excited about having Taylor in the room,” Smith said. “He’s a guy that has experience. He’s won games in this league. The chemistry in that quarterback room is very important to us, as we expect Desmond to take the next step.”

Heinicke, who played at Collins Hill High, has started 25 games in the NFL and has a 12-12-1 record as a starter.

“But we also have a guy that can go in there, win you football games and be ready to play,” Smith said. “You need depth at every position, and that’s obviously the most critical position on the football team.”

During free agency, Heinicke was told that he was being signed as Ridder’s backup.

“We are not sitting there playing games,” Smith said. “Taylor understands his role. So, it’s been very clear.”

Ridder was not heavily recruited out of Louisville St. Xavier High. He had an offer from Eastern Kentucky before the University of Cincinnati swooped in. He finished his career with a 44-6 record.

He was 26-0 at home and set school records with 87 touchdown passes, 12,281 yards and 113 total touchdowns. His 10,239 passing yards rank second in school history.

He led the Bearcats to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Jan. 1, 2021, when they faced Georgia and lost 24-21. The following season, Ridder guided the Bearcats to the College Football Playoffs, as they became the first non-Power Five school to make the playoffs. (Cincinnati will officially join the Big 12, a Power Five conference, on July 1).

The Bearcats lost 27-6 to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, which was a CFP semifinal that season.

The Falcons had some inside information from then-Bearcats coach Luke Fickell, which helped make them comfortable with taking Ridder 74th overall. He was second quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL draft.

“When you’re doing all of your prep in the draft,” Smith said, “obviously, the guy has to physically be able to play in this league. But once you realize that physically they have the traits, it’s a lot about their makeups, their habits, things that you value.”

Ridder was a climber who was bypassed by two big in-state schools, Kentucky and Louisville.

“Desmond has had a unique journey for a quarterback,” Smith said. “He wasn’t one of those guys that was a prodigy early on and had 15 quarterback gurus from the time he was 12. He played receiver and made the switch to quarterback.”

Ridder’s success at Cincinnati was impressive to the Falcons.

“He helped to change the culture there for coach Fickell,” Smith said. “We’re excited about him. We’re excited about his growth and development.”

During the final four games of last season, Ridder played 271 offensive snaps.

Ridder completed 73 of 115 passes (63.5%) for 708 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 86.4.

“He made significant improvement from his first start, second start, third and fourth,” Smith said. “We expect him to make another leap this offseason. There are always little things that you can work on like lower-body mechanics.”

Ridder will have the benefit of staying in the same system next season. The Falcons finished third in the league in rushing. Improving the passing attack will be vital.

“That helps the learning curve when they come back in, what you’re focusing on and not trying to memorize new formations and everything is foreign to them,” Smith said. “So, we expect significant growth from him.”

 Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (4) calls for a play during the fourth quarter against the Cardinals on Sunday, January 1, 2023, in Atlanta. 
 Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder warms before an NFL football between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears In Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.   (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

080122 Flowery Branch, Ga.: Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, right, conducts practice as quarterback Desmond Ridder, left, is shown during training camp at the Falcons Practice Facility, Monday, August 1, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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