Atlanta is turning toward the future, inserting rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder into the starting lineup for Week 15.
The Falcons are officially replacing veteran Marcus Mariota with the 2022 third-round pick during their bye week, preparing him to take over as the starter next week against the Saints, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on Thursday.
Atlanta officially moved toward the future under center in the offseason, trading Matt Ryan to Indianapolis and spending a Day 2 pick on the former Cincinnati star. The Falcons have taken a patient approach with Ridder, sitting him behind Mariota for the first 13 weeks of the season after the rookie showed flashes of a bright future during the preseason.
Atlanta stands at 5-8 overall, but has run into a rough patch offensively, failing to muster more than 17 points in each of its four losses in the last five weeks. Mariota hasn't posed much of a threat in the passing game in recent weeks, breaking 200 yards just once since Week 7. Unsurprisingly, Atlanta has won just twice since then.
Statistically, Mariota hasn't been terrible, completing 61.3 percent of his passes for 2,219 yards, a 15-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 88.2 passer rating. But those who have watched the Falcons on a weekly basis will admit Mariota isn't elevating Atlanta's passing game and has often existed as more of an anchor than a jet engine. Coach Arthur Smith's decision to actively move away from the pass in multiple games this season reflected how he viewed Mariota's ability to lead Atlanta to victory with his arm.
Smith has maximized his return on his team's talent for a second straight season, but the Falcons' recent struggles suggested Smith's team may have reached its limit, signaling the time is now to turn to the rookie. Mariota's contract might also play a role: He's due $12 million in 2023, including a $3 million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the new league year. If ever there was a time to see what the Falcons have in Ridder, it's now.
Ridder elevated his status from draft intrigue to possible future franchise quarterback by excelling in pre-draft testing, leading all quarterbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine in the 40-yard dash, vertical leap and broad jump while impressing teams during his pre-draft interviews. NFL executives admit his arm talent isn't the most impressive, but his mental makeup -- including notable maturity and leadership ability that helped him take command of his Senior Bowl team -- left some admitting "all right, maybe he's got a little something," per NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero.
Ridder's on-field performance at the combine landed him an honorable mention in NFL.com's 2022 All-Combine Team, but up until this point, he's been kept on ice. Thursday's news means the two-time All-American Athletic Conference Player of the Year will finally get his first shot at regular-season action with the benefit of a bye week to prepare for his debut.
The Falcons will hope it's the start of a long, successful career in Atlanta.