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non round 1 rookie quarterback start
Atlanta Falcons

Which 2022 Rookie Quarterback Not Named Kenny Pickett Will Start First?

  • Justin Melo
  • May 7, 2022
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The 2022 NFL Draft was perceived to feature a weaker quarterback class all throughout the process and the outcome confirmed those league-wide beliefs. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the lone franchise to draft a signal-caller in the first round when they selected former Pittsburgh Panther Kenny Pickett. It’s the first time in nearly a decade (2013) that one or fewer quarterbacks were selected in the first round.

We then waited until the No. 74 overall selection for the second quarterback to get drafted. The Atlanta Falcons ended the drought by drafting former Cincinnati Bearcat Desmond Ridder. The Tennessee Titans sensed a run on quarterbacks and promptly traded up in order to select Malik Willis later in the third round. Just eight picks later, the Carolina Panthers swung for the fences by drafting Ole Miss’ Matt Corral. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots later drafted Bailey Zappe and the Washington Commanders received excellent value by drafting Sam Howell in the fifth round. Nine quarterbacks were ultimately selected, with the San Francisco 49ers drafting former Iowa State signal-caller Brock Purdy with the 262nd overall selection, otherwise known as the “Mr. Irrelevant” pick.

These landing spots are extremely curious while begging the question, which non-first-round quarterback possesses the best chance to start?

Corral could be the victor should he manage to wrangle away the backup job from P.J. Walker in Carolina. The Panthers failed to upgrade from Sam Darnold this offseason. He remains the starter in 2022 despite Danold struggling with both performance and injury this past season. As such, it’d be somewhat surprising to see him start all 17 regular-season games for the Panthers in 2022. 

Howell makes for a potentially intriguing candidate in Washington for similar reasons. Carson Wentz takes over in Washington after disappointing as an Indianapolis Colt last season. Expectations are high for Wentz, who is now surrounded with several exciting playmakers including Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin and rookie first-round pick Jahan Dotson. Wentz has also battled multiple injuries as of late. Howell’s path to potentially replacing an injured or underperforming Wentz largely depends on whether or not Taylor Heinicke remains in Washington.

While sensible arguments can be made for Corral and Howell, Ridder is the non-first-round rookie quarterback with the clearest and quickest path to making starts under center. The Falcons traded long-time quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts earlier this offseason. General Manager Terry Fontenot promptly ‘replaced’ Ryan by signing former Heisman-winning signal-caller Marcus Mariota to a two-year contract worth $18.75 million. Really, it’s more of a one-year deal worth $6.75 million that carries a $12 million team-option for 2023. Mariota only landed bridge-starter money and it didn’t prevent Atlanta from drafting Ridder in the third round. 

Additionally, Ridder’s path to serving as the backup is significantly clearer than what Corral and Howell are competing against in their respective situations (Walker and Heinicke). Ridder is likely already ahead of former undrafted free agent quarterback Feleipe Franks, who has one career regular-season passing attempt under his belt. It was intercepted.

Mariota reunites with Falcons Head Coach Arthur Smith in Atlanta, who previously served as his offensive coordinator in Tennessee. While coaches undoubtedly value shared experience with players that already understand their scheme, a sentiment that rings especially true in regards to quarterbacks, Smith and Mariota experienced little success together in Tennessee. 

In 5.5 starts under Smith’s tutelage, Mariota completed just 59% of his passing attempts (94-of-159), while throwing for 1,179 yards (196.5/game). He tossed seven touchdowns and two interceptions, while leading Tennessee to an undesired 2-4 record. The Titans scored seven or less points in three of those four defeats. Mariota was then benched in favor of Ryan Tannehill, and the Titans turned their season around en route to an AFC Championship game appearance. 

Mariota struggled to execute Smith’s scheme with the desired consistency in Tennessee and he’ll be surrounded by an even worse supporting cast in Atlanta. The Falcons fielded what was quite possibly the worst group of pass catchers throughout the 2021 campaign en route to finishing as the league’s seventh-worst scoring offense (18.4 points per contest) despite rostering a veteran gunslinger in Ryan. 

Atlanta’s offense has arguably gotten worse this offseason. Salary cap-related difficulties forced them to allow reliable receiver Russell Gage to sign with their division-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Falcons also recently released running back Mike Davis. Re-signing Cordarrelle Patterson was a huge victory for Atlanta after Patterson enjoyed a breakout season as their do-it-all Swiss army knife weapon in 2021. 

Losing Calvin Ridley to a year-long suspension was a definite blow that left Atlanta without a dominant boundary receiver going forward. Falcons General Manager Terry Fontenot responded by drafting former USC standout Drake London, who immediately became the team’s No. 1 receiver. Pairing London with tight end Kyle Pitts potentially gives Atlanta two dynamic receiving options moving forward but the lack of depth and proven options behind a second-year tight end and rookie receiver makes for a less-than-desirable immediate situation, although I remain extremely high on the future outlooks for Pitts and London going forward. 

Turning our attention to another third-round quarterback, Tennessee’s selection of Willis created an uproar in Nashville. Titans fans were disappointed with Tannehill’s performance throughout the 2021 season, particularly by a three-interception showing in their postseason loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. The discussion was only further ignited by Tannehill’s public admission of having little interest in mentoring Willis. While the Titans are undoubtedly hoping for Willis to develop into their long-term franchise quarterback, his chances of starting a single game in 2022 are extremely slim. Injuries can always serve as a wild-card but a once injury-prone Tannehill has been extremely healthy since arriving in Tennessee. Even if something were to happen to Tannehill, I’m also not totally convinced the Titans would start Willis, who needs time to develop the raw areas of his game, over long-time veteran backup Logan Woodside, who knows their system and scheme inside-out.

Several of these rookie quarterbacks have landed in desirable situations in relation to the long-term outlooks of their careers. Willis will receive an opportunity to prove himself as the heir-apparent to Tannehill in Tennessee. Howell and Corral were drafted into situations that feature questionable veteran quarterbacks. All of this is promising, but Ridder undeniably has the quickest path to potentially earning starts in 2022.