ATLANTA — For the second time in eight years, the Atlanta Falcons opened the vault and dropped a ton of cash on a franchise quarterback.
Matt Ryan, the No. 3 pick in last month’s draft, signed a $72 million, six-year contract Tuesday. The announcement of the new deal came with smiles, confident talk of the future and no mention of Michael Vick, the first pick in 2001 who signed a $130 million extension, the richest in the league at the time, in December 2005.
Blank and the Falcons were especially eager to sign Ryan, avoid a holdout and help the franchise move away from the Vick era with new general manager Thomas Dimitroff, new coach Mike Smith and now a new quarterback.
"The circumstances are always different when it comes to a player, and in Matt’s case the research that Thomas did and coach Smith did, they were extremely comfortable in Matt and what Matt stood for and what he’s going to be for the long term," said team president Rich McKay, the Falcons’ lead negotiator.
"I don’t think there was any hesitancy because of the experience we just had."
Vick last year began a 23-month prison sentence after he confessed to bankrolling a dogfighting ring.
The Falcons’ haste in finalizing the deal with Ryan received a boost when word leaked the NFL owners, who met Tuesday in Atlanta, were about to opt out of a labor deal with the players’ union in 2011. Before the owners’ unanimous vote, the deal could not have gone through 2013.
The Falcons and Ryan’s agent, Tom Condon, already had agreed on six years as the basis for their deal, and to make that happen they needed to complete the negotiations by Tuesday.
"We couldn’t have gotten a six-year contract if we didn’t get this deal done by 4 today," Blank said.
"That was the urgency in getting it done today. The structure of the contract would not have been permissible because of the opt out."
McKay said he was involved in negotiations until 3 a.m. Tuesday and started again at 6 a.m.
Ryan is guaranteed $34.75 million. His guaranteed money is $4.75 million more than that given to Jake Long, the No. 1 overall choice who also is represented by Condon.
Ryan worked behind quarterbacks Chris Redman and Joey Harrington at his first minicamp with the team this month, but he’s getting paid to be the starter. He said he’ll enter training camp expecting to play immediately.
"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. "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."
Redman, Harrington and Byron Leftwich shared the starting job last season. Leftwich was released after the season. Ryan will join Harrington, Redman and D.J. Shockley in the quarterback competition in training camp.
Redman, who finished the 2007 season as the starter, is the favorite to open 2008 with the job. Redman worked with the first-team offense with newly signed running back Michael Turner in minicamp.
The 6-foot-5 Ryan ranked third in the nation with his school-record 4,507 yards passing in 2007.
"It’s highly unusual to get a first-round pick this high in the first round signed in the month of May, and it’s indicative of the kind of person he is," Blank said.
"We’re anxious that he be part of the team and show that kind of leadership."
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 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.
"We don’t want to go through a situation like they went through last year in Oakland," Blank said. "This young man wants to come in and compete."
McKay said he experienced a holdout while with Tampa Bay when the Buccaneers drafted quarterback Trent Dilfer No. 6 overall in 1994.
"I really felt it affected the player and it affected the franchise," McKay said.
"I thought it was not just the right message for the franchise but it’s the right thing to do for the quarterback if you can get him in camp on time so that he doesn’t at all fall behind and have one of those rookie years where he doesn’t catch up."