Falcons’ Desmond Ridder out to prove he deserves to be in the NFL

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder is taking charge.

“He’s smart,” said Falcons wide receiver Penny Hart, who came over from the Seahawks and played with veteran quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Geno Smith in Seattle. “Really smart. Really strong arm. He hit me in the face one time. I’m not ashamed to say it. He’s really smart, and he’s driven.”

Ridder is set to take over as the Falcons’ quarterback after starting the final four games of last season.

“Being as young as he is and being ready to keep going, he’s a great leader,” Hart said. “I think the sky is, not even the sky is the limit. There is no limit with him in where he can go.”

It’s been a short time for Hart, but he has been impressed with Ridder’s leadership style.

“Just him knowing who he is,” Hart said. “That’s what you always want to look for in your teammates and a player or even just in life in general, for people to know how to lead. They do that best by being able to know exactly who they are. And what they can bring to the table, and that is what he has.”

Veteran defensive end Calais Campbell watched film of Ridder with coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot before signing with the team in free agency.

“A big part of that is that you want to win,” said Campbell, a 15-year veteran. “To win, you have to have a quarterback that can get the job done. I remember when we played against them last year when I was in Baltimore, and I saw his potential.”

Ridder played behind Marcus Mariota for 13 games last season. He took over after the bye week and went 2-2 down the stretch. The Falcons have repeatedly marveled at Ridder’s intangibles.

Last season, Ridder said his head was spinning at times.

“You’re getting plays, you’re getting personnel and then you’ve got a whole bunch of new people, and you’re just trying to learn names on a personal basis,” Ridder said. “So, you know, that’s just when your head is going everywhere. It’s slowed down tremendously. Now, it’s just about executing.”

Ridder likes the additions to the offense, including rookie running back Bijan Robinson, who was taken with the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft.

“(On Tuesday), Bijan had a mistake,” Ridder said. “I went up and told him. I just said, ‘Hey, just like in college, if you make a mistake during the play, just finish and go full speed.’ That’s what you see from all of these guys out here, we just finish. We just compete. That’s what we want as a team.”

Ridder was under-recruited out of Louisville, Kentucky. He ended up at Cincinnati and helped guide the Bearcats to a 44-6 mark and a trip to the College Football Playoff as a senior. He’s developed his leadership style, and it comes off as genuine.

“I’m just doing what comes natural to me,” Ridder said. “Nothing is forced, it’s just however it comes out for me. Sometimes it’s loud. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is just real quiet off to the side, and sometimes you’ll see me out there talking to the defense or talking to whoever. That’s just who I am.”

Ridder has been impressed with Robinson.

“This time last year my head was spinning. Now for him, his head is spinning,” Ridder said. “Just getting him in there, getting him into meetings and just getting him comfortable with where he’s at.”

Ridder practices what he preaches. He’s working to improve his game, too.

“Just the connections, being where they need to be, and I’m putting the ball where it needs to be on time,” Ridder said. “For all of those guys who worked out with me this past offseason, it’s been great having that extra connection.

“Having that slight little step, they are just a head above the defense. I’m just going to continue to build this entire offseason with every single guy who might be a starter or the guys who came in on a rookie minicamp deal. Just work with all of the guys to get connections.”

Ridder had a specific plan for the team’s second of 10 OTA sessions.

“Just to stay balanced in my shoulders and not have too much weight on my back foot,” Ridder said. “Just stay balanced with my feet and base. Tomorrow it could be something new.”

As the Falcons added weapons to the offense, have a proven rushing attack and salvaged the offensive line, Ridder is the wild card.

“Just staying within the offense,” Ridder said. “You know, never trying to do too much. Whether it’s myself or anyone else. (I’ve) got 10 other guys around (me) on the field.”

Ridder knows that ball distribution will be key.

“One guy can’t make every play,” Ridder said. “Just letting the guys work around me. Trust and have the respect of every other guy out there. They know and I know that we’re all going to work together to execute the goal.”

Ridder and wide receiver Drake London developed a bond on and off the field last season as rookies. Ridder took London to his first Kentucky Derby this offseason.

London has seen the growth in Ridder.

“If something goes wrong, he’s the first one to speak up,” London said. “He’s just a leader that you want on your team.”

London believes the Falcons’ offense is moving in the right direction.

“You’re not going to know where anybody is lining up,” London said. “Be aggressive and be explosive. ... He’s definitely going to be dialing up stuff for everybody. It’s just position-less football.”

Running back Tyler Allgeier has seen Ridder make strides, too.

“With the huddle,” Allgeier said. “A lot of people are rah-rah, but with him, it’s natural to him. Just boosting everyone; that is good.”

Allgeier is looking forward to his role in the attack.

“We have a really great offensive line and have a lot of weapons, and that just gives Desmond choices,” Allgeier said. “I guess that’s the biggest thing.”

Ridder must be ready to deliver when the Falcons begin the season in September if they plan to end their streak of five consecutive losing seasons.

“Being on a team, respectfully, it’s about getting your job done,” Hart said. “You get your respect by earning the right to get the job done at the end of the day. That’s how the best relationships are built. ... So, the connection and respect is earned by doing your job as best as you possibly can.”

That’s just fine with Ridder, who gained confidence from his four-game tryout last season.

“That I can be here,” Ridder said was his major takeaway. “That I can play this game at a high level. That was my biggest thing, was just going out there and proving that I deserved to be here.”

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