Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, speaking to the media for the first time since the beginning of the 2022 season, said Wednesday afternoon that he believes in Desmond Ridder, a third-round pick last year who started the final four games at quarterback.
"We're very excited about Desmond Ridder," Blank said. "I think from the time he came into training camp, he showed great capabilities as a leader amongst the rookies and then amongst the vets."
Blank also pointed to Ridder's improvement over each of the four games he played and particularly highlighted Ridder not throwing any interceptions in his 115 pass attempts. Ridder finished the season completing 63.5% of his throws for 708 yards and two touchdown passes.
Blank said he knows the team needs other quarterbacks on the roster -- Atlanta has Marcus Mariota and Logan Woodside at the position, but Mariota could be a salary cap cut and Woodside was a late-season signing from Tennessee’s practice squad -- and will leave that to general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith, but the leadership component was clearly important to Blank.
When he talked about having a quarterback on a rookie contract, Blank again was strong in his praise for Ridder's leadership capabilities specifically.
"As good as the quarterback may be, and they're certainly critical part of a winning formula, they can't play by themselves," Blank said. "I mean, there's 21 other players that need to play as well.
"We're committed to the position obviously, and we know we need a good leader there, and I think we have it in Ridder."
Smith has said multiple times since the end of the season that he was encouraged by the progress Ridder made as a rookie, but stopped short of naming Ridder his starter or a potential presumptive starter for the 2023 season.
Smith said at the East-West Shrine Bowl the coaches were "still evaluating" Ridder and their quarterback situation. He said that his earlier descriptions of seeing progress and being encouraged about Ridder "haven't really changed."
"There's a lot of things strategically that will play out over the next couple of months," Smith said. "But feel good about where we're at."
Blank was also encouraged by what he saw from the Falcons as a whole in 2022 despite going 7-10 for the second straight season. He pointed to the amount of dead cap money Atlanta dealt with in the offseason and then throughout the season -- more than $82 million and topping out at more than $87 million -- and that after the last two seasons they'll have money to spend for the first time under Smith and Fontenot.
"I think we're in a very, very good position going forward," Blank said. "And I think Coach Smith and his staff and Terry and his staff have done a remarkable job over the last two years of really transitioning from the roster that we had to the vision that we had and the roster that we’re building to the future."
Blank believes at this time next season he'll feel even better than he does now about the direction of his franchise -- one that hasn't been over .500 at any point since the end of the 2017 season, the longest active stretch in the NFL.
Blank pointed to the Falcons having one of the youngest rosters in the NFL and how the team was competitive in 2022.
Next season? Those expectations will rise -- at least a little bit.
"My expectations in terms of competitiveness would be higher," Blank said. "And I think that the coach would tell you that, Terry would tell you that, and if it's higher that should translate into more wins but you're not in the business of really projecting wins."
Blank said he has been pleased with how his young players have developed. Atlanta finished the season with a rookie quarterback in Ridder, the second-leading rookie rusher in the league in Tyler Allgeier and a rookie receiver leading the Falcons in catches and yards in Drake London, along with second-year tight end Kyle Pitts as offensive players to build around while also having Pro Bowl right guard Chris Lindstrom entering his fifth-year option season. On defense, cornerback A.J. Terrell, linebacker Troy Andersen and safety Richie Grant are on rookie contracts.
The team has also invested in left tackle Jake Matthews and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett as veteran leaders.
"We have a lot of young players that have developed at a very nice level and really have the very best capabilities going forward," Blank said. "So I feel good about where we are and I think I have every reason as a fan and as an owner, and I would say as a fan first and an owner second, to feel better about our team than even we have the last couple of years."