Desmond Ridder: Prime Candidate for Rookie of the Year
NFL Draft - The 2022 quarterback class is filled with prospects who are more theoretical than practical. From electric playmaker Malik Willis to senior scrambler Kenny Pickett, there are plenty of exciting ideas floating around the class, but none of them will be ready for success out of the gate. They will need an adjustment period to get comfortable in the NFL.
Except, that is, for Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder. With four years of starting experience to stand on, Ridder is the most put-together quarterback in the class. Ridder walks the line between playing quickly and in rhythm while still finding opportunities to press the ball into tight windows over the middle and down the field. He cycles through his reads at a brisk pace without just being a Checkdown Charlie, which gives him a wider range of answers within the structure of a play. As a pure pocket passer, above the shoulders, Ridder is in a tier of his own right now.
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Timing is a cornerstone of Ridder's game. Whether it is designed quick game, rushing to a checkdown, or firing an alert route, Ridder plays at a different pace than his peers. The ball consistently comes out at the top of his drop without any wasted time or movement. What's more is that Ridder made that happen at Cincinnati in a system chock full of pro concepts. This is not a one-read-and-go ordeal. Ridder is regularly given the entire field to operate and still plays a full tick or two faster than the other passers in this class.
Ridder's footwork is what allows plays like this to look so smooth. Ridder is reading out the play left to right with his feet and shoulders aimed down the middle throughout most of his drop. By his second-to-last step, Ridder knows the boundary safety (lined up on the "field goal range" line at the snap, toward the bottom of the screen) is staying high in a "Cloud" deep-third and the middle of the field safety (the other defender on the "field goal range line") is staying put. Rather than aiming down the midpoint, Ridder uses his last drop step to turn his body and fire straight away to the isolated out route to the field, wasting zero time at the top of his drop. The receiver slips and falls, so the throw misses, but Ridder got this ball out in such a hurry that the cornerback had no chance of jumping it without predicting it. That's efficiency of movement at its best.
Here is Ridder hitting a checkdown in rhythm off the top of his dropback. Pre-snap, Ridder already has an inkling that the defense may be in man coverage when the field cornerback (the corner at the bottom of the screen, to Ridder's left) sprints up to the line to press. Post-snap, Ridder confirms that cornerback being in man coverage as he runs himself across the field. Now all Ridder has to worry about is the slot defender. Ridder is quick to recognize the slot staying high and square on the slot receiver, leaving no defenders in the immediate flat area, prompting Ridder to flip the ball to the running back as soon as his last foot hits the dirt.
Ridder's work over the middle of the field also helps separate him from the pack. Some of that boils down to how efficiently he can cycle through his progressions and get back to the middle of the field. Another chunk of it is rooted in how well he anticipates and throws with confidence in that direction. On almost every snap, Ridder is confident that he is getting to the right target over the middle and will fire passes in without second-guessing.
Third-and-10. Time for a big boy throw. To the trips side of the field, Cincinnati is running a Dagger concept from the two outside receivers with the No. 3 (innermost) on a deep crosser. Dagger is a great quarters-beater that plays off the field safety. If the safety stays high, throw the dig into the void; if the safety drives on the dig, throw the 1-on-1 down the hash. When Ridder brings his eyes to the field safety, he sees the safety is sitting high over the seam route. Without any hesitation, Ridder rips the ball to the dig route under the safety and moves the chains.
Ridder is good at changing his launch points to adjust to pass-rushers too. Though Ridder does have moments where he holds the ball for too long in hopes of seeing out a full route concept, he navigates the pocket exceptionally well and keeps himself clean without full-on leaving the pocket. In the following example, Ridder does not move very far, but he moves just enough for the play to work—something you can see all throughout his film.
Ridder finishes his drop at the 20-yard line with his feet in the middle of the left hashmarks. By the time the ball is out, Ridder is about a yard outside the 21- to 22-yard line area. Again, that is not far to go, but that 2-ish-yard movement from the top of his drop to where he let the ball go was just enough to keep the incoming pass-rusher from turning the corner and disrupting him. Too many quarterbacks either lack the spatial awareness and multi-task ability to slide around or bail the pocket entirely at the first sign of pressure. Ridder rests in a healthy middle ground that allows him to relocate efficiently in the pocket.
Ridder can be just as efficient when things get tight in the red zone. In this 2020 clip, Cincinnati has a glance/flat combination to the short side of the field (to Ridder's right) with a short in-breaker coming from the other side. This allows Ridder to read out the boundary-side concept and move his eyes back to a route crossing into his vision—a common theme in pro offenses. Ridder showcases his efficiency of movement again, using the bounce off his final drop step to come off the boundary side and pop himself back up to throw the backside in-breaker. Ridder gets his eyes over before the receiver breaks, giving him a clear picture of everything before he ultimately decides to fire away as a defender breaks the pocket.
That is not where Ridder's confidence and aggression end. Ridder is a big-game hunter down the field. Deep crossers, corners, posts, seams, go balls, you name it. If the ball can be thrown over 15 yards, Ridder is setting his sights on that route. That mentality may run counter to his level of arm strength—fine, but ultimately uninspiring—but Ridder plays with such pace and bravado that he more than makes up for his average velocity.
SMU is in a two-high shell pre-snap, which means the middle of the field is "open." To Ridder, that means it's time to rip something down the field between the numbers. As the play gets rolling, SMU's boundary safety to the right side starts to gain depth and width, signaling that side of the coverage is in a Cover-2 call. The safety getting width means there will be an even bigger window near the right hash that the safety just vacated—he is protecting the sideline more than he is the middle of the field. Ridder takes that info and delivers a strike past 20 yards to the slot receiver running an inside post, right into the voided right hash area. It's a tough window, made partially tighter by the ball placement, but Ridder's quick, aggressive operating style made that throw possible in the first place.
Ridder will swing for the fences just the same. He is always willing to push the ball down the field at the slightest inclination that a safety may be out of position. In this clip, Tulsa's defense is also in a two-high structure, this time with just three pass-rushers underneath. Given the light pass rush, Ridder knows he will have time and space to hold out for a deep option. With the middle of the field open again, Ridder just needs to see if either safety (more likely the one on the right hash) flies to the middle of the field before the ball is out. If not, Ridder believes he can beat the safeties with the ball. And he does.
In terms of being a pro quarterback right now, Ridder clears the bar and then some. He is smart, efficient, and willing to test all areas of the field. Everything is on the table from a schematic standpoint in a Ridder-led offense because he can handle it. However, as last week's Film Room on Malik Willis touched on, the NFL is littered with supersoldiers at quarterback. Playmakers with arm talent, mobility, and a degree of zeal outside the pocket are the meta right now. As impressive as Ridder is in so many areas, that is not really his game.
Ridder can occasionally make plays outside the pocket. He is more than athletic enough and his arm strength is not an issue, at least insofar as trying to work up to the 25-yard range. However, the Mahomes/Allen/Rodgers tier of downfield throws off-script are completely off limits for Ridder. To be fair, that is an unreasonable bar, but the NFL is regularly trying to take chances on guys with that kind of potential, and Ridder does not have it.
Moreover, Ridder is typically unwilling to break the pocket in the first place. Most college quarterbacks are quick to bail, but Ridder has the opposite affliction. He plays as though he is bound to the pocket by some ancient spell. Ridder navigates the pocket with such grace and efficiency that his pocket insistence is still a net positive, but there will be moments where he takes a sack trying to cycle to his fourth read rather than abandoning a broken play. It's just the kind of style Ridder's team has to live with. If nothing else, that may be frustrating to watch in comparison to all the other out-of-pocket savants at the top of the quarterback ladder. That frustration will only be exacerbated when you remember he ran a 4.52s 40-yard dash and can clearly move when used as a designed runner.
The other complaint to raise against Ridder is ball placement. Ridder is not inaccurate to a degree that disqualifies him, but his placement is not always as clean as that of his peers. He is more prone to misfires than others. That very well could be a byproduct of Ridder being tasked with the toughest scheme among his classmates, which may lead to more volatile results with a young player, but the issue is present and worth addressing.
Many of Ridder's sprays happen when he is pressured or needs to speed up his throwing process, like in the two plays above. Quarterbacks often struggle in these situations because they lose their minds and can not find the right target. That is not Ridder. Instead, Ridder typically remains calm and finds the right man on time. Then he misses. He just misses. Some of that may come down to his core strength and upper body flexibility not being up to par with the NFL's elites, but even still, it can be tough to stomach Ridder whiffing on these throws.
Ridder will be better for a team looking to win right now rather than swing on long-term potential because he brings plenty of skills that raise an offense's floor. He is a sharp pocket passer who has proven he can consistently execute pro concepts and deliver throws to all three levels. Those passing skills, in addition to his value as a designed runner, will allow Ridder to step in and produce right away.
The drawback is that Ridder's ceiling is not as exciting as some others in this class, most notably Willis. Ridder is not devoid of talent or potential—he still has room to grow and develop the same as any prospect—but he does not have the elite level arm strength to theoretically become one of the three or four best quarterbacks in the league. He could still develop into that second tier, somewhere in the Dak Prescott or prime Matt Ryan area, but teams are itching more and more to reach for the top shelf.
Ridder is a first-round pick. Not a "sprint to draft him top-three" kind of first-round pick, but a first-round pick nonetheless. A fairly competitive roster could draft Ridder and vie for a spot in the playoffs right now. Some teams with longer timelines may want to take the chance on someone more exciting, but for teams looking to reload rather than rebuild, Ridder is the plug-and-play option.