Drafting a starter-ready quarterback outside of the first round is the kind of value most NFL teams dream about finding. It’s a rarity, so the Atlanta Falcons are betting against history with their third-round pick this year.
The team’s quarterback situation is in a state of flux following the decision to trade Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts back in March. It’s only natural, and the fluid state of the depth chart is summed up by the presence of veteran Marcus Mariota as the de facto starter ahead of the new season.
Mariota has experience working with Falcons’ head coach Arthur Smith, but he’s also been a backup the last two seasons. He looks like a stop-gap option until a more polished passer is ready to take the reins.
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That player could come from this year’s draft class. One writer has predicted the Falcons first pick of the third round to follow a similar career path to the one taken by former Super Bowl winner and current Denver Broncos starter, Russell Wilson.
Wilson’s Career the Template for Falcons’ QB of the Future
Taking Desmond Ridder 74th overall was a bold move by Falcons’ general manager Terry Fontenot. He made the ex-Cincinnati starter the second quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL draft and also immediately put a clock on Mariota’s prospects to be the starter in Atlanta.
Those prospects won’t last for long, according to Vinny Iyer of The Sporting News. Iyer believes Ridder has the attributes to prove a steal and start sooner, rather than later: “The Falcons ended up preferring Ridder over Malik Willis and couldn’t pass up on taking the second QB off the board given his arm, athleticism, leadership and intangibles profile is ideal to groom alongside Marcus Mariota. Watch out for him competing and winning the job and becoming an absolute steal in the Dak Prescott-Russell Wilson vein.”
The reference to Wilson should excite Falcons fans. Wilson came off the board in the third round, the 75th player taken, back in 2012, but he quickly won the starting job with the Seattle Seahawks.
It took just two seasons for Wilson to propel the Seahawks to a Lombardi Trophy. He threw a pair of touchdown passes to help the Seahawks flatten the Broncos, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII following the 2013 season.
During his career, Wilson went from overlooked draft prospect to a prolific passer who has surpassed records set by some of the game’s all-time greats:
Wilson was traded to the Broncos for two first-round picks this offseason. He still stands as a prime example of the value teams can find at the quarterback position in the middle rounds of a draft.
So does Dak Prescott, the other starting pro signal-caller mentioned by Iyer. Prescott hasn’t added a Super Bowl to his CV, but he quickly went from fourth-round pick in 2016 to Tony Romo’s replacement with the Dallas Cowboys.
If Ridder is even half as effective as Wilson and Prescott, the Falcons will have gotten the “absolute steal” Iyer claimed. Delivering on that promise will be a tall order, though.
Ridder Would Need Record-Breaking Start to Emulate Wilson
Following the same path as Wilson would require more from Ridder than just winning the starting job as a rookie. He’d also have to put up some record-breaking numbers.
That’s what Wilson did back in 2012, setting one mark not equalled until last season, per ESPN’s Mike Reiss:
Wilson went 11-5 as a rookie, albeit with a stronger supporting cast than Ridder can expect to find in Atlanta. The Seahawks had a burgeoning defense, bulldozing running back Marshawn Lynch and receivers Golden Tate, Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin.
Those players helped Wilson to throw for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns, compared with just 10 interceptions. That’s a daunting statistical benchmark for Ridder.
Prescott set the bar even higher when he helped the Cowboys go 13-3 in 2016. He amassed 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns through the air.
Like Wilson, Prescott wasn’t lacking for talent around him. The Cowboys surrounded their rookie quarterback with Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley.
Ridder won’t work with quite the same level of playmakers, but nor will he be without intriguing weapons. Those weapons include tight end Kyle Pitts, the roving talents of Cordarrelle Patterson and first-round wide receiver Drake London, the eighth player take in this draft.
Unlocking all of those talents may require a quarterback like Ridder, who won 43 games as a four-year starter for the Bearcats. His dual-threat skills helped him throw for 87 touchdowns and rush for 28 more during his collegiate career.
Ridder’s ability as a touch passer off play action and a dynamic runner are showcased in these highlights from ESPN SportsCenter:
Mariota has similar attributes and Smith says the veteran’s got the inside track to start for the moment, but the competition is open, per Josh Kendall of The Athletic.
Smith was Mariota’s offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans in 2019, but that was the same year the Heisman Trophy winner lost the starting job to Ryan Tannehill. He’s been Derek Carr’s backup with the Las Vegas Raiders since.
If Ridder makes it a one-sided competition this offseason, he’ll have taken the first step to not only replicating Wilson, but also to easing the Falcons through the post-Ryan transition.