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The Late-Breaking Desmond Ridder Hype Is More Than a Smoke Screen

Cincinnati’s senior quarterback is receiving more attention as the NFL draft nears. Could he be the first QB off the board?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Through last week’s run of quarterback pro days, I can say Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder made a positive impression on scouts.” That’s a nugget from the grab bag of Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, buried beneath an analysis of the Matt Ryan trade and a conversation about NFL overtime. It was dropped on March 28—a prime date for nuggets at the bottom of articles that will never be mentioned again. That Ridder note hung around quietly between a remark on Johnny Manziel’s attitude in the new Fan Controlled Football league, and Malik Willis’s performance on the whiteboard for NFL scouts. But unlike most little draft nuggets, that Ridder note didn’t fade to black. It started to snowball.

A week later, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler echoed the sentiment after Todd McShay mocked Ridder in the first round—at 32nd to the Lions. “Spots 24-38 could be a sweet spot for him,” Fowler said. ESPN’s Matt Miller upped the ante that same day, tweeting out that he would not be surprised if Ridder ended up being a top-20 pick. Miller later wrote that Ridder “wowed” decision-makers at both the NFL combine and the Senior Bowl, which is in line with Fowler’s report that Ridder “had a plan outlined for how he was going to beat a veteran in a training camp setting and become a starter in this league Year 1.”

A week after that, Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline continued the trend. “Just about everybody has got a first-round grade on Desmond Ridder,” he said. “People have been projecting him in the first round and the latest information I’ve been given backs that up.”

Perhaps it’s all best summed up by Daniel Jeremiah on the Move the Sticks podcast on April 6: “Teams have fallen in love with him.” In a quarterback class largely lamented for its lack of star talent, Ridder is a contender not just to go in the first round or even in the top 15, but to start in Year 1 and become an impact player.

Ridder’s predraft process was understandably quiet. While the Bearcats had consecutive top-10 finishes in the AP poll, including a College Football Playoff appearance in Ridder’s senior season, their success wasn’t solely to Ridder’s credit. Defense has long been Cincinnati’s strength, led by cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, a projected top-10 pick, as well as edge Myjai Sanders, cornerback Coby Bryant, and safety Bryan Cook, all potential top-100 picks. Cincinnati’s offense used a stable of backs, including 2021 seventh-round selection Gerrid Doaks and 2022 draft prospect Jerome Ford, as well as the legs of Ridder, to power a run-oriented attack. Among Division I college programs, the Bearcats were eighth in expected points added per rush and 46th in EPA per pass.

And because Ridder was draft-eligible following the 2020 season, the league already had a feel for him, and tagged him as a middle- to late-round option for last year’s class. PFF charted his 2020 season as generally poor. So the NFL draft industrial complex began to focus its attention elsewhere. When Pittsburgh started throwing the ball all over the yard and winning games in the ACC, analysts highlighted Kenny Pickett’s improvements. As Ole Miss pushed into the AP top 10 with Matt Corral at the helm of Lane Kiffin’s offense, eyes were drawn to his draft stock. And as Cincinnati went undefeated in the regular season once again, it was easy to assume that Ridder was no better than he was in 2020.

But that wasn’t the case. He was much better. PFF’s charting saw Ridder’s accurate pass rate jump by 6 percentage points; his perfectly placed pass rate jumped almost 15 percentage points. In measures of downfield passing and uncatchable pass rate, his rank among his peers skyrocketed.

Desmond Ridder Percentile Among College Quarterbacks

Stat 2020 2021
Stat 2020 2021
Deep passing 34 93
Uncatchable pass rate (10+ yards) 23 53
True dropback passing grade 18 91

And yet, despite this improvement, the key hang-up in Ridder’s evaluation seems to be his accuracy. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly writes, “His accuracy runs hot and cold, much like a shooter who’s trying to find his rhythm on the basketball court. He missed on some deep passes, either sailing the ball over his target’s head or letting the ball hang too much in the air.” Deep-ball placement is the first negative on Lance Zierlein’s scouting report for NFL.com; precise placement to “make things easier on his receivers” is a weakness Ridder must improve, according to Dane Brugler of The Athletic.

The concern here is understandable. When Ridder misses, he often misses badly. Take this quick out-breaking route against Notre Dame. This is a pitch-and-catch throw for most college quarterbacks, let alone NFL passers—and Ridder has hit this throw multiple times. Except this time, he just … misses it.

I’m not entirely sure why he misses it. Some people think Ridder’s mechanics are poor. He does have a long windup at times, but that doesn’t drain his accuracy so much as it affects his time to throw, giving smart defensive linemen an opportunity to jump into his throwing windows. (Of the 11 passes Ridder had batted down at the line of scrimmage last year, four came against Alabama in the playoff semifinal.) Ridder’s feet can get jumpy in the pocket, which forces unnecessary off-platform throws—but the same is true of most college quarterbacks, and certainly all the other quarterbacks in this class.

Which brings us to a pretty key data point: Ridder may not be the most accurate quarterback in the world, but relative to the other quarterbacks in this class, he’s totally fine. PFF charted Ridder with an accurate pass rate of 60.9 percent, which is just below Pickett (62.4 percent) and Corral (61.6 percent) for the top mark in the class among draftable quarterbacks. Ridder beats out both Sam Howell and Malik Willis comfortably in that metric.

By my charting, the top quarterbacks are still clustered tightly, but Ridder is the most accurate of the bunch. While other quarterbacks beat him out in the short-passing game, Ridder is ahead on intermediate (10 to 19 yards) and downfield (20-plus yards) throws. His numbers aren’t incredible when compared to top passers in previous draft classes, but in this class, he’s the most accurate passer downfield—which, if I had to choose one area of the field for my quarterback to be accurate, would be the one I’d choose.

Catchable Pass Rate by 2022 NFL Draft Quarterbacks

Range Desmond Ridder Kenny Pickett Malik Willis Matt Corral Sam Howell Carson Strong
Range Desmond Ridder Kenny Pickett Malik Willis Matt Corral Sam Howell Carson Strong
20+ yards 81.5% 74.3% 73.4% 67.9% 67.5% 68.1%
10-19 yards 87.1% 84.5% 72.4% 81.0% 81.6% 85.0%
0-9 yards 93.2% 94.2% 92.2% 93.1% 92.3% 87.1%
Behind LOS 94.8% 98.8% 95.2% 96.3% 100.0% 94.5%
OVERALL 90.0% 89.2% 83.1% 86.7% 85.3% 84.9%

So why do so many people think Ridder’s accuracy is a problem? For one, these glaring misses tend to stand out in our minds. But it’s also because there isn’t much else to complain about. Ridder isn’t a pinpoint shooter, but if he’s passably accurate, the rest of his evaluation is impressive. Ridder is an excellent pre-snap processor, who regularly maximizes his receivers and protects his offensive line by finding the most advantageous pre-snap read and hitting it early in his dropback. On this play against Indiana, Ridder identifies a potential blitzer from the boundary, changes his protection at the line of scrimmage, and then immediately attacks the blitzer with a hole-shot throw to star WR Alec Pierce along the sideline.

This marriage of processing speed and aggression is critical in Ridder’s evaluation. Drop-eight defensive coverages intend to suffocate downfield windows and force checkdowns to prevent explosive gains. Against such coverages, Ridder completed 74 percent of his passes for 9.74 yards an attempt, whistling progression throws between the gaps in zone coverages even with the extra defender dropping downfield.

That middle of the field is very important for Ridder. While Corral has a zippy little fastball that he can throw underneath and Howell has a towering moonball he can drop into a bucket far downfield, Ridder has every arrow in his quiver, including the ever-important “layered” throw to the middle of the field. Dropping the seam or dig between the linebackers and safeties of the defense requires an innate understanding of timing, ball placement, and rhythm—and despite his elongated windup or allegedly spotty accuracy, Ridder shows a clear grasp of these concepts that other top quarterbacks in the 2022 class don’t have.

For all of these reasons, Ridder is an excellent player in structure—and to the league’s great delight, that isn’t all. Ridder can also make it happen out of structure. He isn’t an elite scramble quarterback in terms of tackle-breaking, like Willis or Jalen Hurts, nor in terms of arm talent, like Aaron Rodgers or Justin Herbert, but he has plenty of juice in both traits, as well as good discernment and risk management on the fly. Ridder ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, and when he chooses to break the pocket, is a danger to pursuit angles. Ridder’s competitive motor also runs super hot, and he will fight for difficult yardage to keep the sticks moving.

Accuracy isn’t a problem for Ridder—it’s just the weakest part of his game. And while accuracy is certainly important, Ridder’s ball placement comfortably clears the bar that we should expect of an NFL quarterback. So does his processing, pocket management, aggressiveness, and playmaking ability. He’s a proven winner with an NFL frame and oozes the confidence teams adore out of potential starting quarterbacks. So what hang-up remains?

Ridder just isn’t sexy—at least, not the sort of sexy teams want to take with top-10 draft picks at quarterback. While Ridder clears the bar in all areas of quarterback play, he isn’t really superlative in any one area. His best trait is his processing, which has fallen out of favor in a modern NFL that has increasingly welcomed scramble drills and RPOs in favor of the methodical, detailed passing offenses of the 2000s. He’s a perfectly cromulent quarterback. But as recent classes have produced highlight-reel stars in Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, and Kyler Murray, teams don’t want cromulent quarterbacks. They want consummate ones.

But beggars can’t be choosers. This class has a potentially superlative quarterback in Willis, but otherwise lacks for project players who could develop into scintillating stars. The foolish teams will wag their heads and hope for an opportunity to swing for the fences next year. Maybe they’ll connect—maybe they won’t. But one wise team will capitalize on the late-career push and draft-season surge of Ridder, a good, old fashioned, solid quarterback prospect.