Falcons don’t have to wait on Desmond Ridder

Visibly happy Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (4) walks off the field after the Falcons defeated the Buccaneers 30-17 for the last game of the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, January 8, 2022.  Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Visibly happy Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (4) walks off the field after the Falcons defeated the Buccaneers 30-17 for the last game of the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, January 8, 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

The Falcons have a lot of salary-cap room, plenty of draft picks and so many options for using both.

Shoring up the defensive line will be a priority. The Falcons could use more playmakers alongside tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Drake London. They’ll have to determine if they need a new starter at right tackle. Coach Arthur Smith needs to hire a new defensive coordinator.

Those are important decisions. None of them matter as much as deciding what to do at quarterback. Get that call wrong, and it will drag down the whole operation. Get it right, and a good quarterback can make missteps elsewhere not matter so much.

The Falcons aren’t ready to declare that incumbent Desmond Ridder is the answer. He didn’t fall on his face during his run as the starter. He also didn’t stand out. Maybe that’s not even possible to do over a four-game sample, with 136 drop-backs. The good thing for the Falcons is they aren’t boxed in to waiting to see if Ridder is the guy.

NFL teams are committed to giving top quarterback prospects every chance to be the guy because they invest high draft picks to acquire them. Ridder was drafted 74th overall. His salary counts $1.2 million against the cap in 2023. The investment in Ridder easily can be written off as a sunk cost by the Falcons, if it comes to that.

The Falcons shouldn’t go into 2023 with no real competition in the quarterback group for Ridder. Even better if they acquire a proven starter. That wouldn’t mean giving up on Ridder. It would mean making sure they have a QB they can win with during a pivotal season for the direction of the franchise.

Fans of the city’s NFL team have watched losing football for a while now. It’s not supposed to work that way. The league is structured so that bad teams can get good, quickly. The Falcons have beaten the odds by losing for a long time. Getting better play at the most valuable position on the field is the fastest way to reverse the trend.

The Falcons don’t necessarily need to use their top pick, No. 8 overall, for a QB. There’s risk in that strategy. The top college quarterbacks will be off the board by then. Getting it wrong with a lesser prospect at No. 8 means paying them more than $6 million per year and missing the chance to get a better player at another position.

The timing is right for the Falcons to consider free-agent quarterbacks. I don’t mean signing a stopgap, like Marcus Mariota was this season. The coming free-agent class includes some good starters. The Falcons are projected to have more cap space than every team except Chicago, so they could make a strong bid for one of them if they choose.

Normally, good quarterbacks never make it to the open market. What’s different now is that two quarterbacks once written off as backups, Geno Smith and Jimmy Garoppolo, proved that they can play. Another rare occurrence is a good quarterback on the trade market. The Raiders are moving on from Derek Carr.

Smith revived his career with the Seahawks this season. The 49ers tried to trade Jimmy Garoppolo before the season, and he ended up saving them when Trey Lance was injured. Smith or Garoppolo would be an upgrade for the Falcons at quarterback. The trick would be offering them contracts that don’t hamstring them for years. That’s possible to pull off.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Atlanta is a potential landing spot for Carr, who has a no-trade clause. The Falcons need to keep adding to their base of young talent, so surrendering draft picks must be done with caution. The Raiders may have to end up settling for less than they want. The Raiders will owe Carr more than $40 million if he’s on the roster Feb. 15. The rest of the league knows he won’t be, so they can wait.

It’s possible that the Falcons decide that the price for a proven veteran starter is too high. If so, they can roll with Ridder and a marginal veteran at quarterback. Maybe Ridder really is ready. It’s just risky to rely on him to be an effective starter for a playoff team when he’s so inexperienced.

The postseason is the bar for the Falcons in 2023. They last qualified for the playoffs in 2017. That’s also the last time they had a winning record. The five-year streak is tied with the Panthers for fourth-longest in the league. The Jets (2010), Broncos (2015) and Lions (2016) are the only teams that have gone longer with no postseason bids.

After cratering in 2021, Smith’s Falcons have pulled themselves up to the level of Dan Quinn’s worst teams. The point differential was minus-18 for both the 2019 and 2020 Falcons. The Falcons were outscored by 125 points in 2021 and 21 points in 2020. Those numbers suggest the Falcons are back to where they started before Smith took over, but in context, it’s progress.

Quinn’s teams increasingly relied on older, underperforming players with salaries that took up a big chunk of cap room. Smith has gotten similar results from a team with many young players and some productive veterans. The Falcons are on the come.

Fielding a good quarterback in 2023 would accelerate the process. It’s the decision that matters most for the Falcons during this offseason.