Why Arthur Smith placed a bet on Desmond Ridder

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In the days leading up to the 2022 NFL draft, a common pairing was quarterback Desmond Ridder, and the Atlanta Falcons.

In fact, in my final, predictive mock draft before the real thing, I had Atlanta trading back into the first round out of the 43rd spot to draft Ridder at 25 overall.

Those of us who made this connection had the pairing right, but not when it would take place. Ridder did get the call from the Falcons, but not until the third round.

Now that he is headed to Atlanta, why did so many of us make this connection? Why did head coach Arthur Smith place this bet on Ridder?

Let’s dive in.

Getting to the right decision with the football

In the days before the draft, Smith met with the media and during the course of that conversation, highlighted two areas of critical importance when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks.

Decision-making was on the list:

Any dive into the Falcons’ decision to draft Ridder starts with his ability to make the right read and decision with the football. In the 2022 draft class of quarterbacks, Ridder’s decisions with the football stand out as not just his best trait, but one of the strongest traits in the class. Studying Ridder the past season uncovers a quarterback who consistently got to the right option on a play, even if the post-snap picture from the defense was different than his pre-snap expectations.

For example, watch this completion to tight end Leonard Taylor against Notre Dame, which has Taylor releasing vertically along the right side of the field:

Ridder does not wait for the receiver to clear the underneath defender, but he lets this pass go before the receiver does so. That little different gives the receiver the chance to catch and cradle before the free safety can arrive. If Ridder waits, he’ll bring the free safety into play, and this 3rd down might become 4th down.

Instead, the offense stays on the field, and the receiver makes that free safety miss in space due to the timing of the throw.

Here is just one more example of Ridder responding to a rotation in the defense and getting to the right option with the football. On this play against East Carolina, the Pirates show Ridder two-deep safeties before the snap. As the play begins, the safety to the boundary side blitzes, as the defense rotates into single-high. Ridder’s eyes come right to Pierce on the vertical, and the two connect for six:

A critical component to playing quarterback is making decisions. For Smith, that is one of the most important traits to evaluating the position. Ridder’s ability to get to the right read, even when his pre-snap expectations from the defense did not align with the post-snap realities, was a huge plus in his evaluation.

And a huge reason he is moving to Atlanta.

Athleticism

Another big plus in the Ridder column? His athleticism. When the Cincinnati prospect posted a 4.52 second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, it confirmed what many saw on film: Ridder can be a weapon with his legs.

That athleticism allowed Cincinnati to use Ridder on some designed running plays, giving opposing defensive coordinators yet one more thing to worry about each week. On this touchdown run against South Florida, Ridder keeps the football on a zone read play, and picks up a mini convoy in the form of Taylor blocking across the formation:

Look familiar?

Smith also relied on some boot-action concepts, designed to get Tannehill out of the pocket and give him the option to pick up yardage with his legs should the coverage downfield take away his reads. On this play against Baltimore from 2020, the quarterback did just that to pick up a first down in the fourth quarter:

While the vast majority of Ridder’s rushing production came on designed plays, his athletic ability puts him in a position to benefit from similar designs at the next level.

The accuracy question

In the wake of the Falcons drafting Ridder, many fans looked at his scouting reports, then revisited the above quote from Smith, and did a double-take.

We covered the first trait that Smith highlighted, decision-making. The second? Accuracy.

Which prompted said double-take.

After all, one of the questions about Ridder during his pre-draft process was accuracy, or more specifically ball placement. While the questions about Ridder in this regard were relevant, they also ignored to some degree the improvement Ridder showed during his final season. For example, Pro Football Focus charted Ridder with an adjusted completion percentage on downfield throws of 52% in 2021, a big jump from his 33% in 2020.

In addition, PFF’s charting data in 2020 had Ridder in the 23rd percentile in “uncatchable” passes on throws of ten or more yards. Last season? Ridder jumped to the 53rd percentile. Not perfect, but still a huge improvement. And in terms of deep passing, Ridder jumped from the 34th percentile to the 93rd.

The improvements were there, but the questions remained. Perhaps due to the “cake being baked” so to speak, or perhaps due to the idea of this being a one-season mirage. Still, the improvements Ridder showed on film should give fans the hope that his development, with respect to accuracy and ball placement, is under way.

If that trendline continues, pairing that with Ridder’s documented strengths of decision-making and athleticism will make for quite the combination in the NFL. Whether we see that in 2022, or later, remains to be seen. But when Ridder does see the field, expect those dual strengths to be a big focus of the Atlanta offense.

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