Falcons training camp position preview: Can QB Marcus Mariota hold off Desmond Ridder?
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Falcons traded 14-year-old pro Matt Ryan on March 21. They signed free agent quarterback Marcus Mariota later that day. They drafted Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder on April 29.
And they insisted that – despite Ryan asking for a trade following Deshaun Watson’s pursuit in Atlanta, despite Falcons coach Arthur Smith benching Mariota the last time the quarterback played for him, despite Ridder’s draft setting up a potentially uncomfortable quarterback competition – no relationship was damaged in the sausage-making process of rebuilding the team of the NFL.
Now is the time to see if all that cordiality can outlast the competition.
The Falcons open training camp on Tuesday, and question #1 is about the quarterback. Mariota was signed with the expectation that he would be the starting quarterback, and that remains the expectation at least for the September 11 season opener against New Orleans. However, Atlanta could not have known at the time of Mariota’s signing that Ridder would be available with the No. 74 pick or that Ridder would take over the team’s offense as quickly as he did this offseason.
There’s also this: Despite Smith’s forceful denial of the idea that the crop of quarterbacks expected to be available in the 2023 draft will have no effect on this season’s decision-making, it seems clear that By the end of this season, the Falcons should have an accurate idea of how they feel about Ridder’s potential as the quarterback of the future.
Falcons coach Arthur Smith is not a fan.
— The Athletic NFL (@TheAthleticNFL) May 18, 2022
Mariota and Ridder assumed their respective roles in quarterback competition – Mariota as the accommodating veteran and Ridder as the eager rookie.
“He’s been a sponge,” Mariota said. “I told him, ‘Don’t hesitate to ask questions.’ You have to give him a lot of credit. It does a great job of being in the (game)book.
• Can Arthur Smith rediscover the run game?
• Size and more added to the wide receiver
• Will the depth of line D emerge from within?
• Acquired linebackers to animate pass rush
• Can the Falcons build a secondary around AJ Terrell?
Smith and quarterbacks coach Charles London praised Mariota’s willingness to coach Ridder despite the obvious potential downside of his own playing time.
“It was awesome,” London said. “It’s a competition hall. They jostle, it’s great. I think it’s really essential to have synergy in this room. This is a group that really wants to get out there and be successful.
Marcus Mariota, 6-foot-4, 222 pounds
It’s probably instructive to talk about what a quarterback’s numbers look like when Smith’s offense is working. When Mariota was benched after six starts for the Titans in 2019, he was completing 59.4% of his passes, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt and had a 92.3 passer rating. After replacing Mariota, Ryan Tannehill completed 70.3% of his passes, averaged 9.6 yards per attempt, 117.5 passer rating, and was named the league’s Returning Player of the Year.
All of those numbers would be career highs for Mariota, who has never had a passer rating above 95.6 as a starter.
Smith expects Mariota to be a better player for Atlanta than he was for the Titans because he has more experience and because Smith thinks he has a better idea of how to shoot Mariota’s best party.
“With everyone else you get another chance to do something, there are lessons to be learned, they are hard lessons, but if you take them the right way you appreciate the opportunity more,” said Smith.
The Atlanta coach also expects Mariota to be a positive influence in the Falcons locker room, calling him “a great person to be around.”
“He’s genuine,” Smith said. “He is who he is. We’re not asking him to come here and be Matt Ryan or be Peyton Manning. Be Marcus Mariota. That’s what we want.
Just maybe a Mariota who completes a higher percentage of passes and pushes the ball more often downfield.
Desmond Rider, 6-4, 215
Speaking of players pushing the ball down the field…
“The trait that stood out to me the most with Ridder was his aggressiveness in terms of hunting big game,” Athleticism said football analyst Ted Nguyen. “He wasn’t happy just with the checks or the rapid progress of his progressions. He let the deeper lanes develop and he was trying to manipulate defenses with his eyes to try and open up big plays on the pitch.
Ridder averaged 8.6 yards per attempt last season, which ranked him 23rd in the nation. Obviously, there’s a danger in assuming that college traits or stats will carry over to the NFL, but Ridder played in an offense at Cincinnati that prepared him for professional football.
“Des is the guy we thought he was going to be,” London said. “He has a long way to go, but he is improving a bit every day. We challenge him to choose one thing each day to improve a little. He did a good job learning the playbook. He was well trained in college. They have great coaches there, so he came prepared, and being with Marcus has been great for him.
After drafting Ridder and throughout OTAs and team minicamp, Smith has avoided the question of quarterback competition, and that is expected to continue into training camp. While Smith was impressed with Ridder’s mental development, Mariota clearly started the process with a big lead due to his seven seasons in the NFL and time on offense for Smith.
There is also the matter of timing to consider when predicting a starting quarterback. The Falcons start the season with one of the toughest seven-game streaks in the league – New Orleans, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Cincinnati.
It would be asking a lot for a rookie rookie to dive into this considering all the other question marks in the team. However, weeks 8-10 could present an opportunity. Atlanta faces Carolina and the Los Angeles Chargers at home, then Carolina on the road in this stretch. If the Falcons are considering giving up the starting job, that sounds like an accommodating stretch, at least by NFL standards.
Feliipe Franks, 6-6, 228
Feleipe Franks will be listed on the quarterback depth chart, but he’s basically a tight end. This is where he spent most of his time during OTAs and minicamp and where he will get all the game snaps he will get this year except for two major injuries ahead of him.
(Top photo by Marcus Mariota: Dale Zanine/USA Today)