By measure of how much of the Falcons’ salary-cap space he occupies, Desmond Ridder barely is a blip on the radar, a prairie dog on the open plains of Kansas.
With a modest salary (by NFL standards) of $870,000 plus his prorated signing bonus and roster bonus, Ridder’s cap charge is $1.2 million, according to overthecap.com. That’s half of 1% of the $224.8 million that the franchise can spend for the season. Club owner Arthur Blank probably has Venmo’d larger sums.
Across the league, only two quarterbacks expected to be their teams’ opening-game starters lay claim to less salary-cap turf than Ridder.
For a guy who has so much of his team’s fortunes riding on his shoulders, it’s a funny outlay. (His agent might opt for a different adjective than “funny.”)
But so it is. Designated not only as coach Arthur Smith’s starting quarterback but the “quarterback of the future” by Blank, Mr. Less Than 1% will carry the banner of a franchise that is trying to turn the corner in the third year of the regime of Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot.
Ridder won’t have to do all of the heavy lifting. Ridder’s light impact on the budget helped enable the club to make several impactful free-agent purchases this offseason. But he’s the quarterback. If he’s not effective, the Falcons’ playoff drought likely will extend to a sixth year. As the season begins, only three of the league’s 32 teams have gone longer in not making the postseason.
If the playoffs don’t happen for the Falcons – and particularly if Ridder’s play is a reason why – the heat on Smith and Fontenot will increase, in no small part because of their decision to go all in on the second-year quarterback from Cincinnati. Ultimately, it could mean livelihoods on the line.
Asked Wednesday about having a lot depending on his play, Ridder smartly reframed it.
“As the job and position of quarterback, I feel that pressure every single day of just going out there and making sure that everyone’s where they need to be and … that we’re running smooth and flawless as a team,” he said.
No sure things exist in the NFL – save, perhaps, owners’ unquenchable thirst for more revenue, the undying popularity of throwback uniforms and the gracious humility of Cowboys fans. But the world of uncertainty does include the prospects for a third-round pick with four games to his credit.
It’s just not very frequent that NFL teams find franchise quarterbacks past the second round. Here’s a fun one to share at your tailgate – dating to the 2013 draft, there’s been one quarterback drafted in the third round or later who went on to start in 10 or more games and start a playoff game (Dallas’ Dak Prescott).
This is a bit of manipulating the data. The 2012 draft yielded two third-round quarterbacks who won Super Bowls – Russell Wilson and Nick Foles – and another franchise quarterback in the fourth, Kirk Cousins. And also, San Francisco’s Brock Purdy transformed from being the last pick of the 2022 draft to starting the final five games of the regular season and winning two playoff games.
Even still, the point remains. If Ridder becomes the quarterback that the Falcons leadership envisions, he’ll be an anomaly. (He’ll also put in a request for a bit more than .5% of the salary cap.)
That hardly means it won’t happen. Ridder is more than just his draft position. He was a four-year starter at Cincinnati with a 44-6 record. He has won over coaches and teammates with his work ethic and character. He was given a year to learn the offense. He has been surrounded with one of the better offensive lines in the league and dynamic playmakers at the skill positions. He has a creative game-planner in Smith. His team will play in what looks like a soft NFC South. Ridder scarcely could be better positioned for success, and his teammates have testified repeatedly to their belief in him.
Veteran left tackle Jake Matthews said that it was clear in Ridder’s four-game run at the end of last season that he was a rookie, but that he’s “on it” this year in his handling of the huddle and play-calls.
“And there’s some lengthy ones,” he said. “He’s been doing a good job. He’s gone out there and his confidence is up. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him.”
ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky expects the Falcons to use Ridder as a run threat in the way that the Eagles have taken advantage of quarterback Jalen Hurts’ legs. On the strength of option keepers and quarterback draws, Hurts complemented his 3,701 passing yards with 760 yards on the ground to lead Philadelphia to the Super Bowl.
“I’ve kind of said, I expect Atlanta to look a little (like) Philly South in that regard,” Orlovsky said. “How much do they use him as a runner? Because I think they should because he’s plenty athletic and big enough.”
And now comes the fun part. Starting with the season opener Sunday at home against Carolina, the truth about Ridder and the Falcons will be revealed one game at a time in arguably the most anticipated season since 2017 following the team’s Super Bowl collapse.
By December, will Falcons fans be laughing at the low expectations set for Ridder, for whom an online sportsbook set his over/under passing yardage at 2,500.5, the lowest for any of the 29 quarterbacks listed?
Will the Falcons be the surprise team that wins the NFC South for the first time since 2016, riding a revamped defense, its positionless offense and Ridder’s better-than-expected performance?
Or will the wait for a playoff berth extend, perhaps undermined by an aging defensive front or an offense stuck in second gear because of the well-meaning but limited quarterback?
Prairie dog or top dog?
Ridder comes across as likeable, confident and a player easy to root for. The young man himself (he turned 24 on Aug. 31) is eager for the curtain to rise.
“I’m ready to roll,” Ridder said. “There ain’t no doubt about it. I’m ready to go.”
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com