FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Desmond Ridder has impressed himself — and more importantly, coach Arthur Smith — with his ability to quickly absorb the Atlanta Falcons' playbook.
Ridder is still considered the challenger to veteran Marcus Mariota in the team's starting quarterback competition. However, based on his strong performances in mandatory minicamp this week and last month's rookie camp, the third-round draft pick from Cincinnati could gain ground quickly when training camp opens on July 26.
Smith doesn't toss around compliments easily, especially to rookies, which is why his praise of Ridder was so notable Wednesday.
"He's light years ahead of most other young quarterbacks from the neck up," Smith said. "I will give him that compliment."
Mariota is expected to open the season as the starter as the Falcons move on from 14 seasons with Matt Ryan playing almost every game at quarterback. The Falcons signed Mariota the same day they traded Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts in late March and then drafted Ridder as a possible long-term option.
Mariota, 28, has served as a mentor for Ridder. The former Tennessee Titans starter, who was a backup with the Las Vegas Raiders the past two years, said Ridder has "been a sponge" during the offseason workouts.
"I told him don't hesitate to ask questions, and I think when you have the confidence and you have the courage to be able to ask questions, I think you are able to kind of experience things and learn things a lot faster," Mariota said.
"You've got to give him a lot of credit. He's doing a great job of just being in the book, trying to learn. He understands you're going to come out here and you're going to make mistakes. That's part of it. But it's just learning from the experience, and I think he's done a great job all camp."
Ridder said after Tuesday's first minicamp practice he was surprised by his "overall knowledge of the offense."
"I thought I was going to come in and struggle a little bit," Ridder said. "We're almost all the way through all our installs and putting in all those checks. I've got a good grasp of it. That kind of surprised me, honestly, you know? I'm not going to say I wouldn't have picked it up, but I thought it would take me just a little bit longer, an extra couple of days. But I've been able to pick up on it pretty smoothly."
Asked when he first felt comfortable with his knowledge of the playbook and terminology, Ridder said: "About last week.
"Just the flow of it, the way it's coming out of my sentences in the huddle to the command that I have at the line of scrimmage to just seeing the defense and also seeing the offense. Everything just came to me."
Ridder's confidence is good news for Smith, who said the rookie is "definitely doing a good job."
"He's very intelligent," Smith said before adding, "Clearly he's got to continue to improve .. but behind the scenes there are things he has done that have impressed me as a rookie."
Smith listed "how he's operating, his walk-throughs and duties and installations and on the field and his command" as ways Ridder has impressed.
Now for the physical part of the game. That test comes in training camp and preseason games.
"You're betting on some of the physical things you've seen in time to catch up," Smith said.
The Falcons plan to carry only three quarterbacks into training camp — even though one of them, Feleipe Franks, is spending time at tight end — because that allows the team to guarantee repetitions for Mariota and Ridder atop the depth chart.
The team completed its second and final minicamp practice with a spirited competition between offensive and defensive linemen catching punts. At stake was either the offense or defense being allowed to skip sprints at the end, and Ryan Neuzil ran in to catch the final punt, giving the offense a win before he was hoisted onto teammates' shoulders as the hero of the day.
Smith said he was taking players to a Topgolf outing Thursday to end the minicamp, which started Tuesday with 100% turnout but not full participation.
Smith said he allowed running back and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to continue his personal offseason workout program instead of joining his teammates on the practice fields.
"Trying to be smart, to maximize him so we have him for 17 games," Smith said of Patterson, 31, who was a surprise of the Falcons' 7-10 season in 2021.
Patterson led the team in rushing with 618 yards and ranked third with 52 receptions, with those covering 548 yards. He a combined 11 touchdowns rushing and receiving and also had 18 returns for 434 yards. He signed a two-year, $10.5 million deal on March 19 and is expected to serve a similar all-purpose role this season.
"He's a real pro," Smith said before Tuesday's practice. "I didn't think it was necessary for where he's at, and we need him to play a 17-game season. Again, it's not one size fits all. You try to be smart. It was my decision. He's here, but he won't be out on the field."
Smith said cornerback Mike Ford was excused because of a family matter, while linebacker Deion Jones, fullback Keith Smith and defensive lineman Vincent Taylor were held out while rehabbing from injuries or offseason surgeries. Smith said he couldn't guarantee all the players who are rehabbing will be cleared for the start of training camp.
"I won't back anybody into a corner, but I feel good about where we'll be on July 26," Smith said, adding it was possible "one or two guys" could be placed on the physically unable to perform list. "It may be short term. We just have to assess that when guys come back for training camp."