Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (4) works in the pocket against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) – Desmond Ridder’s four-game audition as the Atlanta Falcons’ starting quarterback at the end of the 2022 season was crucial for the confidence of all players entering the 2023 season.

Jake Matthews, a 10th-year left tackle, says those four games provided an important transition to the leader of a young core on offense that now also includes rookie running back Bijan Robinson.

Matthews said after Wednesday’s organized team activities workout the four-game audition provided a “very” important reason to believe other starters on offense can have confidence in Ridder.

“He showed improvement in every game,” Matthews said. “He’s proven he can play. Now we just have to continue to learn and to improve and play and show it.”

Falcons coach Arthur Smith says he expects Ridder to open the season as the starter. Veteran Taylor Heinicke was signed to be Ridder’s backup, but has the experience to start if necessary.

A third-round draft pick from Cincinnati in 2022, Ridder opened his rookie season as Marcus Mariota’s backup. Mariota was benched with four games remaining and then opted for season-ending knee surgery, opening the way for Ridder to produce a 2-2 record in the finish to a 7-10 season.

Ridder completed 63.5% of his passes for 708 yards. He had two touchdowns in the season-ending win over Tampa Bay.

Ridder said Wednesday the first four games as a starter were “100% crucial” for him to feel more comfortable entering his first full season as the starter.

“The more team game reps you can take, obviously, you know, the better and the more comfortable you’re going to feel,” Ridder said. “So having those four games, obviously then coming in the offseason was crucial for me.”

Further clarity to the team’s commitment to Ridder came when Mariota was released on Feb. 28 before signing with Philadelphia and the Falcons did not commit a draft pick or a large portion of their free-agent budget to another quarterback.

Now Ridder is in the spotlight as the key piece to a young core of playmakers that also includes Robinson, running back Tyler Allgeier, wide receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts. Another rookie, Matthew Bergeron, will compete for a starting job at left guard.

Ridder was even the topic of the Falcons’ recruiting pitch to free agent defensive end Calais Campbell, who said last month he asked about the quarterback before agreeing to a one-year deal.

“You want to win and to win you have to have a good quarterback,” Campbell said, adding “I saw his potential” when the Falcons played Campbell’s Baltimore Ravens last season. Even so, Campbell said he asked Smith about Ridder.

“He said ‘Well let’s put the tape on,'” Campbell said. ”We were talking through what makes him special and you put the tape on and you see he has the intangibles and he can develop. I mean, he’s still young and he’s going to have growing pains. … For a second-year player though, you see his potential.”

That spotlight has continued in the offseason with Ridder making an appearance at Atlanta’s NASCAR race in March and throwing out the first pitch at a Braves game on May 21.

“We had had a not-so-good first pitch by (guard Chris) Lindstrom a couple of weeks before, so when I got out there, I had to bring the team average up just a little bit,” Ridder said. “… It got across the plate.”

Ridder knew his accuracy on the mound would be closely watched. Smith knows his quarterback’s accuracy on the field also will be under scrutiny, even in Atlanta’s run-first attack.

Smith says he was encouraged by Ridder’s progress through his four starts and says the momentum has continued in the offseason.

“The improvement in those four starts, you’re looking at the situational stuff he handles,” Smith said. “And you may get off to a rough start. Can you settle down? Can you adapt and see what their game plan is. The critical downs, I talk about it all the time, third down and red zone and two-minute. And I thought he made a lot of strides there.”