The Atlanta Falcons aren't ignoring the ongoing contract situation regarding Lamar Jackson. They're also not approaching the remainder of the offseason with Jackson atop their wish list.
A big reason for Atlanta's decision to proceed without pursuing Jackson is the presence of second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder. The Falcons selected Ridder in the third round of the 2022 draft and handed him the keys to the offense for the final month of his rookie season, watching the Cincinnati product lead Atlanta to two wins to close the year.
Coach Arthur Smith has seen enough from Ridder to feel comfortable proceeding with him as the team's top option -- and to decline pursuing Jackson.
"He won a lot of games in college and helped Luke Fickell at Cincinnati really change the whole culture of that program," Smith said when asked why Ridder excites Smith entering 2023 during an appearance on the Rich Eisen Show. "And I certainly think that experience, you start that many games coming in helps, we certainly saw that early on as we threw everything we could at him. And he was impressive, and we felt that he was ready to take over at that time of the season, and I thought he did a nice job. Cool, collected under pressure.
"At the end of the day, you've got to be able to operate on critical third downs, fourth downs, two-minute situations, and I thought he'd done that pretty well. And certainly there's a lot of things we all can continue to improve, but we've got a lot of faith in him."
Ridder's numbers weren't astounding -- he completed 63.4% of his passes for 708 yards and two touchdowns in his four games -- but he helped the Falcons find ways to win against fellow NFC teams late in an otherwise lost season, doing enough to earn the starting job entering 2023. Atlanta isn't exactly in win-now mode, either, giving Smith the room to help cultivate a young quarterback instead of mortgaging the farm to acquire a player like Jackson.
"You know, the belief becomes so much more transactional," Smith explained. "I mean look at the people that are willing to make trades, and they happen quick now, and I think any time any player, it's our job to understand the markets that's going on, and who's available, who's not, do they fit, and there's a lot of things that go into it. With those transactions, where you're willing to spend in the salary cap, and there's great debates, certainly makes your shows more interesting, and that's great for the league, but at the end of the day you've got to do what you think is best for your team and what you're building and how it fits into that puzzle.
"And like I said there's a lot of great players and they become available it seems now more than ever. I mean look at the deals that were done a year ago and you've got a quarterback that's on a huge deal a year ago that's available now. And that was unheard of 20 years ago."
Jackson's situation isn't quite unprecedented, but is far from normal. As he waits out the negotiation process with Baltimore, the league has been watching its counterparts to see who might take the first swing at the dynamic quarterback. So far, there's been little movement on that front, even if plenty of questions have been asked of those in charge of teams with needs at quarterback.
Atlanta could be classified as one of those clubs. The Falcons began the 2022 season with Marcus Mariota, but struggled so much they shifted toward a run-first approach that minimized Mariota's importance to their chances of success. By the time Ridder entered the fold, his games were little more than a proving ground to earn himself a more serious look in 2023.
He appears to have passed that preliminary test. That doesn't mean Smith and Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot aren't going to keep looking for upgrades throughout their roster. They just aren't going to go to great lengths to add a quarterback of Jackson's caliber, not at this stage in their path toward relevance.
"Rich, I mean everything that becomes available around the league, if it can improve our roster we discuss," Smith told Eisen. "And that's at every position, whether it's the fifth corner, the backup gunner on punt, we're always going to look to add, and that's at every position. So those discussions happen all day every day, those are standard operating procedures, and I imagine most teams do the same thing.
"And I understand some players get more attention than the others, absolutely, you've got to understand what is going on, what are the trends, and see what's available, so those are everyday conversations."