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No. 2 the No. 1 attraction at Falcons minicamp
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FLOWERY BRANCH — There were signs Saturday that Atlanta Falcons No. 7 jerseys may become yesterday’s fashion.

Some fans attending the Falcons opening day of minicamp wore No. 2 jerseys in early tribute to the team’s new hope at quarterback, rookie Matt Ryan.

The Falcons used a committee approach in the 2007 season to replace Michael Vick, but Ryan is to be the long-term replacement as the team’s new franchise player.

Vick’s No. 7 has not been given to another Atlanta player since he began serving a 23-month prison sentence after pleading guilty last year to bankrolling a dogfighting ring. Vick, suspended indefinitely by NFL commissioner Roger Goodall, also faces state charges in Virginia.

Vick still has fans in Atlanta, but Ryan’s No. 2 is the new attraction at the merchandise tent near the practice fields.

“It’s pretty cool to see people wearing your jersey, I’m not going to lie to you,” Ryan said. “It’s nice. I appreciate their support. Hopefully, I can play well and get more 2 jerseys in the stands.”

Ryan’s top-billing role on the team was obvious at the end of the first practice.

Other rookies collected veterans’ helmets and gear to take off the practice fields, the job expected to be filled by first-year players all season.

Ryan, however, was asked to join some of the team’s top veteran players for an autograph session with the fans.

Make no mistake. From day one, Ryan is one of the team’s stars, if not the biggest star. Such is the expectation which goes with being the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft.

Ryan is the future, and Saturday’s two practices gave the former Boston College star his first opportunity to prove that future can begin in his 2008 rookie season.

“I thought Matt threw the ball well out there,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith. “Like anybody going out there on his first practice, I thought he was a little bit nervous and had some jitters.”

The jitters were obvious to others, including veteran receiver Brian Finneran, who is making a comeback from two knee surgeries. One of Ryan’s first passes was an unimpressive completion to Finneran.

“I caught it, but I knew he probably was not happy with the way that first one came out,” Finneran said, adding he was impressed that Ryan walked up and promised the next pass attempt would come with more authority.
“The next one was gorgeous,” Finneran said. “He made up for it.”

Ryan said he was looking forward to the next practice.

“It was a fun first day,” he said. “It’s nice to have it under your belt at this point.

“I think everybody is anxious when it’s their first practice, their first time out. I was. It’s just nice to have that over and settle in. I’m just kind of in the flow.”

Smith said he was sure all the rookies’ “heads are swimming right now” as they try to learn plays and routines in their first minicamp. Smith is beginning his first year, so the playbook is new for all the players, but the veterans had a minicamp before the draft.

“I’m just trying to understand the offense, too,” Ryan said. “I’m doing my best when I’m out there. I’m just trying to survey it and make sure I get a good look at everything. I’m ready to go when I do snap the ball.”

Ryan shared snaps with two of the 2007 starting quarterbacks, Chris Redman and Joey Harrington, and backup D.J. Shockley, who is returning from a knee injury.

“It’s kind of like being a freshman,” Ryan said. “You have to take your lumps, try to learn from it and try to earn the respect of your teammates. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

The rookie class includes another first-round pick, offensive tackle Sam Baker, the former four-year starter at left tackle at Southern Cal.

“It’s definitely cool to go through the process with somebody,” Baker said. “I think that definitely helps.”
Baker’s father, Arena Football League commissioner David Baker, attended the practice.
“This is pretty neat,” said the elder Baker.

“There’s nothing I like better than being in tennis shoes, shorts and a baseball cap and watching your boy.”

Sam Baker could start before Ryan. The Falcons cut veteran tackle Wayne Gandy after last season. Another longtime starter, Todd Weiner, has not yet been cleared to run as he recovers from knee surgery.

Smith said “the next few weeks are going to be critical” for Weiner’s chances of being ready for training camp.
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