Rain pounded on Desmond Ridder’s helmet in Mobile, Ala., as he took a snap from under center during National team practices at the Senior Bowl in March. After watching his peers struggle with inconsistency throughout the Wednesday workout, Ridder leaned on his strengths and ran the ball for a 15-yard gain before galloping to the sideline.
“I think being able to extend plays is huge in this game,” Ridder said in March. “Not just being able to stand in the pocket and obviously make throws, but once plays break down, or someone comes after you, you’ve got to be able to run away and make plays, whether that’s with your feet or with your arm after you’ve escaped the pocket.”
Ridder’s understanding of self and situation has been a theme throughout his journey to the NFL, which culminated on Friday when he was selected in the third round with the 74th overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons.
The Cincinnati alum has gotten used to figuring out his surroundings and executing a successful mode of attack over the years. That’s largely why he appealed to the Falcons, who lack a long-term answer at quarterback.
Desmond Ridder: Tone-setter and teammate enhancer
If he’s asked to compete with presumed bridge starting QB Marcus Mariota from Day 1, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy believes Ridder has the intangibles to challenge the veteran for the starting QB job in training camp.
“The reason why most guys can’t handle it is because of immaturity,” Nagy told Pro Football Network last week. “That’s just not Desmond at all.”
Nagy first met Ridder, a four-year starting QB at Cincinnati, at the Manning Academy Camp last July in Thibodaux, La. While the longtime NFL scout had heard glowing reviews about Ridder from his Bearcat coaches, including head coach Luke Fickell, he was impressed by the quarterback’s demeanor during their first encounter.
“The maturity stood out immediately,” Nagy said. “I had heard a lot from the Cincinnati staff about Des, and what he’d done to lift that program, but it’s another thing when you get in front of him and have your own interactions.”
Ridder’s maturity was his ace in the hole throughout his college career. After redshirting his first year on the Cincinnati campus, he took over the starting QB job and never looked back. He guided the Bearcats, who were previously 4-8, to an 11-2 record as a redshirt freshman.
From there, the Bearcats were Ridder’s team. He went 44-6 during his four seasons as a starter, producing the third-most wins by a QB in college football history. He set program and American Athletic Conference records with 12,418 total yards and 113 total touchdowns.
Ridder also set the school record for passing touchdowns as he tossed 87 scores during his 50 games. He won back-to-back AAC Offensive Player of the Year awards and led the Bearcats to the College Football Playoffs and a 13-1 record as a senior.
“From the talent perspective — I’ve been really open — he was our No. 1-rated quarterback throughout the offseason and going into the season,” Nagy said. “Here in our building, we’ve been big Desmond Ridder fans for over a year now.”
During his final campaign at Cincinnati, Ridder threw for 3,334 yards and 30 touchdowns while also running for 365 yards and six scores on the ground.
While his career completion percentage (62.1%) has been a regular source of criticism throughout the draft process, Ridder offers rare mobility at the position that increases his upside for an NFL offense. The dual-threat QB produced an eye-popping 2,180 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns during his career.
And while that numbers dump is impressive overall, it’s everything else that Ridder brings to the table that should excite Falcons fans.
A leader who elevates those around him
As a leader, Ridder immediately changed the culture in Cincinnati, and he was able to will a middling program into a national contender throughout his four-year run. The spotlight, circumstances, and adversity were never too big for him as a Bearcat, which should make Falcons feel strongly about his potential early returns for the franchise.
“I think what’s lost now — you don’t hear it as much as you used to when I got into the business 25 years ago — is quarterbacks who elevate the guys around them,” Nagy said. “You don’t hear people talk about that as much anymore, and I don’t know why. I think that’s a pretty big deal.”
While the national narrative around the Bearcats — especially with last year’s playoff run — was that the program regularly overachieved, those results were largely due to the play and guidance of Ridder. With him steering the ship and a group of ascending talent on defense, Cincinnati became a sustainable winner, even if they were out-recruited by more prominent programs.
“He helped change the culture, won a ton of games and made everyone around him better,” Nagy said. “That’s what quarterbacks have to do. They beat a lot of teams they probably shouldn’t have beaten, and that’s what great quarterbacks do. They have that ability to affect the people around them. I think Desmond should get a lot of credit for that.”
Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick Kenny Pickett was drafted higher than Ridder, but the 20th overall pick didn’t have the success in college that he did. While Steelers are banking on the readiness of Pickett, Ridder is the most established winner of the pair.
Said Nagy: “Anyone who overlooks that part of Desmond’s resume is mistaken.”
Senior Bowl Standout
While Pickett and Willis managed to find teams who preferred them over Ridder, Nagy quickly pointed out that the Cincinnati alum had the most consistent performance during their shared experience at the Senior Bowl.
“He really didn’t have any bad moments,” Nagy said. “He was steady, and he did some really good things. I thought he had a really nice day in the inclement weather day. I thought he showed really well and played really well in the game. He did just about everything he could do in a game setting.”
Ridder completed 4-of-6 passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-10 win for the National team during the all-star game. He accounted for more passing touchdowns in the game than the other five QBs combined and added 12 rushing yards on three carries on top of that success as a passer.
But his real success that week in Mobile came in the meeting rooms. Ridder met with most of the teams in attendance, and the feedback from his early interview process provided an extra boost heading into the rest of his draft journey.
“I think coaches appreciate what Desmond brings to the table, maybe even more so than the scouts,” Nagy said. “I started to hear it during Senior Bowl week, how much Desmond was crushing the interview process. I ask a lot of the teams while they are down here, ‘Who is doing a good job in the interviews?’ Desmond’s name consistently started to come up.”
Playing for more than himself
Following his standout performance at the Senior Bowl, Ridder took part in the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound quarterback ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash and posted a 10’7” broad jump. He also looked accurate during field drills and continued to ace his interviews, according to the buzz that’s been building ever since.
“This is where I shine,” Ridder said at the Combine. “This is what I do — I’m a competitor. Any type of testing drills, I’m doing everything. And then throwing, that just comes natural.”
Ridder gained momentum with media pundits throughout March, as he was heralded as a potential first-round pick. While he ultimately needed to wait until Day 2 to hear his name get called, he was still the second QB off the board.
With a young family to support — his longtime partner Claire and their 1-year-old daughter, Leighton — Ridder delivered for his loved ones the way he produced for his teammates at Cincinnati. Nagy, who has gotten to know Ridder throughout the past year, believes his maturity was an X-factor for his draft appeal.
“He handles himself like a pro, he’s very mature,” Nagy said. “I think what is different is he’s a family man. He’s in a different stage of his life than the other guys are.”
Ridder steps into a QB room with question marks in Atlanta. He displayed the ability to adapt and become a young leader in Cincinnati, but the stakes are now much higher. Instead of leading a bunch of teenagers at an obscure program, Ridder has a professional bullseye on his back.
The pressure is on, but Nagy feels that Ridder is equipped to handle it.
“Desmond is playing for more than himself right now,” Nagy said. “And that’s a wife and a baby, so he’s ready to be a pro.”