May 20, 2008

Soon after the Atlanta Falcons informed Matt Ryan's agent, Tom Condon, that they were going to take him with their first pick on NFL draft weekend, Falcons president Rich McKay said to the veteran agent, "You know where we are. Can you do this early?"

Condon knew exactly where the Falcons were -- residing squarely under the black cloud of the Michael Vick dogfighting case and coach Bobby Petrino's abandonment of the team with three games left last season. That's one of the big reasons the club was anxious to do what it did Tuesday afternoon.

In a stunning contract sure to have ramifications up and down the first round of the NFL draft, the Falcons signed the former Boston College quarterback to a six-year, $72 million contract with a hefty $34.75 million bonus. Ryan, the No. 3 pick, is expected to compete for the starting job with Falcon roster holdovers Joey Harrington and Chris Redman. But it's only a matter of time before he wins the job as Atlanta's quarterback of the future.

"I think that's certainly the goal, to prepare to play, to do everything you can to be on the field and play," Ryan said at a news conference Tuesday night in Atlanta. "That's what I'm going to do. I think I did well picking things up in minicamp. I know there's still a lot to learn. I think I've done pretty well so far."

NFL teams had been trying to hold down rookie salaries this year, and Miami's signing of No. 1 pick Jake Long to a five-year, $57.75 million contract with $30 million guaranteed was a step in the right direction because it contained approximately the same guaranteed money as last year's top pick, JaMarcus Russell, received from the Raiders.

The difference here, obviously, is that the Falcons got six years out of Ryan while Miami signed Long for only five, so the bonus logically might have been higher. But $34.75 million is approximately $11 million more than last year's third pick, Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas, got in guarantees. So this is a big win for Ryan and for the agents who don't want to see teams sign first-round picks for less money than a year ago.

Condon and the Falcons agreed to the deal at 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, 15 minutes before a league-imposed deadline that would have made it much more difficult to sign players to six-year contracts.

"We couldn't have gotten a six-year contract if we didn't get this deal done by 4 today," said Falcons owner Arthur Blank. "That was the urgency in getting it done today. The structure of the contract would not have been permissible because of the opt out."

Ryan said he wasn't surprised to have the deal done so soon.

"I knew everyone had made the commitment and wanted to get it done," Ryan said. "I'm just excited and happy. ... I'm proud of the fact I'm an Atlanta Falcon."

Blank said he wanted to sign Ryan early to avoid a repeat of quarterback JaMarcus Russell's holdout with the Oakland Raiders last year. Russell, the top pick in last year's draft, missed all of training camp, signed three days before the 2007 season and made his only start in the final game of the season.

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