The Falcons, it turns out, aren’t messing around when it comes to their franchise quarterback, like the Ravens did last season and the Bears are doing now.
The Falcons signed sixth-year quarterback Matt Ryan to a massive contract extension on Thursday — five years, $103.75 million, with an average salary of $20.75 million that ranks only behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ($22 million) in the entire league. The deal locks in Ryan, who had a year left on his rookie contract, as the Falcons’ starting quarterback through the 2017 season, when he’ll be 33.
It’s a different tactic than the one taken by the Ravens, who walked away from the negotiating table with Joe Flacco last offseason, and the Bears, who announced last week that Jay Cutler will have to play out his contract and can’t talk extension until next offseason.
Flacco and the Ravens almost had a deal in place that would have paid him $16 million per year, but that fell apart over $1 million in the final year of the contract. Instead, they let Flacco play out his deal, and it cost them — he won the Super Bowl and cashed in for $120.6 million over six years, with the third-highest average salary in the league ($20.1 million).
“I’ve never in my life seen a dumber move,” Flacco’s agent, Joe Linta, told USA Today in May. “One million to [Ravens owner] Steve Bisciotti six years from now? That’s like 100 bucks for you or me today.”
In hindsight, the decision to walk away from negotiations cost the Ravens, though surely they don’t mind the higher price tag given that Flacco just won them a Super Bowl. Even though Ryan hasn’t taken the Falcons to a Super Bowl, getting his contract done before this season, and paying him like a championship quarterback, was the smart move by both he and the team.
“Any time you’ve got a really good player, it’s going to be cheaper to extend him, because the salaries for good players always go up,” said Joel Corry, an agent for two decades and now a salary cap expert for National Football Post. “They did what they had to do with him, unless he reverted into Mark Sanchez from last year, which isn’t going to happen. It’s smart salary cap management.”
Ryan may not have a ring yet, but he’s been everything the Falcons could have hoped he would be, and more, when they took him No. 3 overall in 2008. He has a 56-22 record (.718), with four playoff appearances in five years and a trip to the NFC Championship game last year. He also brought stability to a franchise that was in shambles after the Michael Vick dogfighting fiasco. Ryan’s career path mirrors that of Peyton Manning, who was made the NFL’s highest-paid player before the 2004 season despite not having a championship.
No question, the Falcons’ other young stars — receiver Julio Jones, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, and safety Thomas DeCoud among them — took notice of what Ryan did to get paid.
“You’re sending a message to your locker room when you give a player an extension, ‘These are the things we’re looking for,’ ” said former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, now an agent for NFL coaches. “I would always assess if the players fit all the characteristics we were looking for, which were: football was important to them; they were the same person after a win or a loss; and money wouldn’t change them.”
The Falcons are gambling that Ryan will lead them to a Super Bowl, but the Ravens and Bears arguably took the bigger gamble by letting their quarterbacks get to free agency. If Cutler has a big season like Flacco did last year, it could cost the Bears dearly.
The Bears may be forced to use the exclusive-rights franchise tag on Cutler, which could cost them more than $20 million next season, because the regular franchise tag may not be enough (which team wouldn’t give up two first-round picks for a championship-caliber quarterback?).
Good quarterbacks, obviously, are hard to find. There are only five current starting quarterbacks who were not drafted by their current team but have taken them to the playoffs — Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo (undrafted), and Cutler.
Even if your franchise quarterback has been a B-plus player — Cutler likely qualifies in that regard — the certainty of having a solid quarterback is better than starting over in the draft or free agency with an unknown quantity.
The Falcons may have “overpaid” Ryan based on what he has accomplished, but not for what he means to the franchise.
“He’s likely at the top of his market, and don’t see many reasons to think that would change, as he has a demonstrated body of evidence over time, not just one season,” an NFL front office executive said. “You wonder if they have had ‘big picture’ discussions with him in regards to giving him a strong contract, but also allowing the team to keep players and build a nucleus that will allow the team to continue to succeed. Matt strikes me as a guy who would understand that concept.”
League, union not
quite there on HGH
The NFL and NFL Players Association took steps last week that appeared to show major progress in cleaning up the league from performance-enhancing drugs. Reports emerged from the NFL Network that the sides were closing in on a deal to start testing for human growth hormone, as they promised in the new collective bargaining agreement two years ago.
NFL players using HGH — Boomer Esiason estimated last year that 60-70 percent of NFL players are using it — shouldn’t be too concerned yet. Despite the proclamations by the NFL and NFLPA, the league still appears to be a ways off from joining Major League Baseball as the only pro sports league to test for HGH.
The only real step taken last week, and it has yet to be finalized, is the NFLPA told players to be prepared to give blood samples this training camp for a baseline study. The NFLPA contends that NFL players have higher concentrations of growth hormone in their bodies, given their athletic and aggressive natures. So, the NFLPA wants to conduct a “population study” of players to gauge growth hormone levels among current players.
Once the levels are established, then the league can, in theory, develop a standard in which a player is deemed to have too much growth hormone in his system.
Patriots receiver Matthew Slater, the team’s union representative, said last week that “some of the details are not finalized yet” and the players haven’t been asked to give the blood samples, although players do give blood during their preseason physicals.
But Slater said that he is for HGH testing, “as long as they’re not pricking you every day.”
“We’re not quite there yet, but it’s important we have a clean sport and we represent this league with integrity,” he said.
A fascinating article published last week on TheMMQB.com, the new venture run by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, said that the NFL is going about HGH testing all wrong, and that the proposed testing is really just window dressing.
NFL players are also only randomly drug tested on two days a week, so players know that once the testing has happened, they are free to use HGH again (the drug has a detection window of about 20 hours). And a baseline study of current players will likely only establish that a lot of players are currently using HGH.
“If the results of the test will only be used to establish the limits — a letter the union sent to its members said no other use would be made of the data, meaning no retroactive discipline for a high HGH level — a cynic might suggest that NFL players should make sure to use HGH before their blood is drawn for the population study,” wrote David Epstein.
So no, the NFL isn’t really that close to implementing HGH testing. And even if it does, there are no assurances that it will eradicate its use.
Teams have decisions
to make under center
With training camps open or about to open, let’s take a look at the quarterback battles throughout the league:
Jets — Incumbent: Mark Sanchez. Challenger: Geno Smith.
The Jets drafted Smith in the second round to be their quarterback of the future, but Sanchez, believe it or not, still gives them the best chance to succeed in 2013. And that’s clearly the top criteria, as coach Rex Ryan is firmly on the hot seat. The Jets have whispered that they might use Smith as a change-of-pace quarterback, which could be a disaster.
Bills — Incumbent: Kevin Kolb. Challenger: E.J. Manuel.
New coach Doug Marrone said the two will split snaps with the first-team offense when the Bills open camp Sunday night, and it’s only a matter of time before Manuel, taken 16th overall this year, is starting.
The Bills gave Kolb a two-year deal this offseason, but only $1 million guaranteed. Unless Kolb blows away Manuel in this competition, expect to see Manuel in Week 1 against the Patriots.
Jaguars — Incumbent: Blaine Gabbert. Challenger: Chad Henne.
This could be the toughest one to call, since neither is very good.
Gabbert likely deserves one last chance to prove himself after two subpar seasons. However, the Jaguars’ new regime of general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley didn’t draft Gabbert and doesn’t feel any obligation to him.
Henne makes four or five poor decisions a game, but he’s solid enough to keep the seat warm until the Jaguars draft another QB next year. Expect both to start this year.
Browns — Incumbent: Brandon Weeden. Challengers: Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer.
Weeden was a first-round pick just a year ago, but again, there’s a new regime in town with GM Michael Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski.
Given that “Chud” loves to throw downfield, Weeden is more of a West Coast quarterback, and produced a lowly 72.6 passer rating last year, don’t be shocked if the strong-armed Campbell beats him out. Hoyer is a dark horse because of Lombardi, who has always shown an affinity toward former Bill Belichick players.
Eagles — Incumbent: Michael Vick. Challengers: Nick Foles, Matt Barkley.
We’ll be shocked if Vick isn’t the Week 1 starter — his speed and skill set seem like a good match for Chip Kelly’s high-octane offense. But Barkley has the feel of being this year’s Russell Wilson, and don’t be shocked if he winds up the starter by the end of the season.
Buccaneers — Incumbent: Josh Freeman. Challenger: Mike Glennon.
The Buccaneers haven’t given up on Freeman, who topped 4,000 yards last year with a 27/17 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But they opted not to extend his contract before it expires at the end of this year, and then drafted Glennon in the third round.
Expect Freeman to start Week 1, but to have a short leash if the Bucs struggle.
Reid is in no rush
to call running plays
We all know that Andy Reid loved to throw the ball when he was the coach in Philadelphia — between 2004-12, the Eagles ranked in the top 13 in pass attempts every year, and 20th or lower in rushing attempts five times.
But his first two practices in Kansas City last week took it to a whole new level, when he didn’t have the Chiefs practice a single running play. The emphasis on the passing game was likely a way to get new quarterback Alex Smith comfortable with the pass-heavy West Coast offense.
Smith has averaged 27 pass attempts per game in his career, and the Eagles averaged 36 per game over the last three years.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has been adamant about not changing the team’s nickname despite its racist origins, but it might be time to reconsider when two of the team’s all-time greats say it might be time for a change.
“[If] Native Americans feel like Redskins or the Chiefs or [another] name is offensive to them, then who are we to say to them, ‘No, it’s not?’ ” Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk said last week.
Added Hall of Fame corner Darrell Green: “It deserves and warrants conversation because somebody is saying, ‘Hey, this offends me.’ ”
Think a few GMs want a do-over for the 2008 draft?
Other than Matt Ryan, Chris Long, and Jerod Mayo, the top 10 is littered with guys who didn’t meet expectations or were busts.
Jake Long, the No. 1 pick, started strong for Miami, but a multitude of injuries have made him a shell of the player he once was, prompting the Dolphins to let him leave for the Rams in free agency.
Darren McFadden (No. 4) can’t stay healthy; Glenn Dorsey (No. 5), Vernon Gholston (No. 6), and Derrick Harvey (No. 8) were busts; Keith Rivers (No. 9) was traded from the Bengals to the Giants after three seasons for a fifth-round pick; and Sedrick Ellis (No. 7) just retired after five unmemorable seasons with the Saints and the 2013 offseason with the Bears.
Obviously, Joe Flacco should have gone higher than 18th, and Ryan Clady should have gone higher than 12th.
Might have to start a new running item: Things Darnell Dockett Says.
The Cardinals’ uproarious defensive tackle tweeted on Tuesday: “My pet tiger his name is ‘buddy’ I’m gonna bring him to a practice in training camp at least ‘one day’ he’s handsome!” Included in the tweet was a picture of an adorable baby tiger.
Dockett also told Fox Sports 910 in Phoenix that he recently offered to pay $30,000 for a monkey, but it was not for sale.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.