Falcons Football

Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks Desmond Ridder (4) and Marcus Mariota (1) work during their NFL minicamp football practice Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Desmond Ridder has impressed himself — and 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 Falcons' quarterback competition. Based on his strong start in mandatory minicamp and rookie camp, Ridder, 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. It was notable when he handed Ridder praise on Wednesday.

"He's light years ahead of most other young quarterbacks from the neck up," Smith said of Ridder. "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. The Falcons signed Mariota on the same day they traded Ryan to Indianapolis and then drafted Ridder as a possible long-term option.

Mariota, 28, has served as a mentor for Ridder. Mariota 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 is proving to be a fast learner. He said after Tuesday's first minicamp practice he was surprised by his "overall knowledge of the offense."

"Honestly, I'm not going to lie, 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.

Ridder was only the second quarterback selected in the NFL draft. Pitt's Kenny Pickett was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round.

Ridder led Cincinnati to last season's College Football Playoff, throwing 30 touchdown passes. He set a school career record with 87 scoring passes.

The Falcons plan to carry only three quarterbacks into training camp even though Feleipe Franks is spending time at tight end. The plan allows the Falcons to guarantee repetitions for Mariota and Ridder atop the depth chart.

NOTES: The Falcons completed their 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 the post-practice sprints. Offensive lineman Ryan Neuzil ran in to catch the final punt, giving the offense a win. Neuzil, a second-year player, was then hoisted onto his teammates shoulders as the hero of the day. Smith said he was taking players to a Top Golf outing on Thursday to end the minicamp.