The Falcons’ quarterback succession plan is now in place

Desmond Ridder was the NFL draft’s 74th pick. He was the 10th player chosen in Round 3. By then, the Falcons had taken a wide receiver, an edge rusher and a linebacker. That Ridder was the second quarterback selected tells us what NFL teams thought of this class of quarterbacks.

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This isn’t to say no Round 3 quarterback has met professional success. Joe Montana (82nd overall in 1979) did OK. Russell Wilson (75th in 2012) was the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl played Feb. 2, 2014. Nick Foles, taken 13 spots after Wilson, was the Super Bowl MVP in February 2018.

Those, however, are exceptions. New England spent the 74th pick on Ryan Mallett of Arkansas in 2011. He started four NFL games – though none for the Patriots, who had a competent No. 1. Mike Glennon of N.C. State, taken 73rd in 2015, is still around, having worked for six different clubs and made 31 starts. David Greene of Georgia went 85th in 2005; he didn’t take an NFL snap.

It would be presumptuous to label Ridder of Cincinnati as Matt Ryan’s heir apparent. Ryan was drafted 71 spots earlier. He started Week 1 of Year 1. He threw a touchdown pass on his first NFL delivery. He started every game save three from 2008 through Jan. 9, 2022. Had the Falcons not pursued Deshaun Watson, Ryan would still work in Flowery Branch.

This was Ryan in recent days, speaking on the Ryen Russillo podcast: “It’s more than likely I probably would’ve still been there had circumstances been different.”

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For better or worse, the good ship Matty has sailed. Two hours after the trade with Indianapolis was announced, the Falcons signed Marcus Mariota, lately of the Raiders. Drafted No. 2 overall behind Jameis Winston in 2015, Mariota once was a big deal. He served as the Titans’ starter for 4 ½ seasons. He’s apt to be starting for the Falcons in September. He mightn’t be starting in November.

Ridder’s rookie contract will run for four seasons. Mariota’s deal is for two years at $18.75 million. According to Spotrac, only $6.75M is guaranteed – his $1.5M salary for 2022 and a $5M signing bonus. Per Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network, Mariota will receive a $3M roster bonus if he’s on the roster next March.

For a Round 3 draftee to start Game 1 of Year 1 is a lot to ask, probably too much. (Wilson did. Montana didn’t.) The narrowness of Mariota’s contract tells us the Falcons deem him a seat-warmer. If Ridder shows anything, a franchise in need of a new No. 1 quarterback will be eager to see what he can do in games that count.

Jared Goff didn’t play in the Rams’ first nine games of 2016. They were 4-5 in early November, having scored 29 points over the previous three games. They turned to Goff, whose first seven starts resulted in losses. The next season, he took them to the playoffs. The season after that, he started in the Super Bowl.

Yes, there’s a difference. The Rams, who took Goff No. 1 overall, had many more millions invested in him than the Falcons will in a third-rounder. Should Mariota resurrect his career – the way Ryan Tannehill did in Nashville at Mariota’s expense – the Falcons will be happy to keep him around for a second season. If this season goes belly-up, its second half can serve as Ridder’s audition.

Were you a bettor, you’d bet on belly-up. At last check, the Falcons’ over/under was five wins, second lowest among the league’s 32 teams. There should be ample time for experimentation. If Ridder appears promising, the Falcons might not need to position themselves to snag Bryce Young next spring. If Ridder is overwhelmed, the positioning can commence.

The administration of general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith was handed a losing team hamstrung by a bloated payroll. Their club had to get worse to get better. The four-day flirtation with Watson saw the Falcons get ahead of themselves, but the resulting trade of Ryan allowed the rebuild to begin in earnest.

As bleak as next season figures to be, there’s a plan in place. Mariota is here, though his tenure might be brief. The Falcons won’t have to start a rookie in Week 1, but there’s nothing to keep them from bumping up Ridder in Week 10. If neither appears a long-term answer, there’s a better crop of quarterbacks next year. Is it possible this franchise knows what it’s doing?

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee