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Falcons put premium on rookie contract process


Flowery Branch, Ga.-- When the Falcons signed quarterback Matt Ryan, less than a month after they made him the third-overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, a precedent was set.

Ryan was rookie General Manager Thomas Dimitroff's first draft-pick signing and he and his negotiators moved swiftly with Ryan's agent, Tom Condon, to hammer out a contract for the services of the former Boston College star early in the offseason.

The quarterback was selected for a reason, his football ability notwithstanding, and all parties involved wanted a deal done quickly and were committed to achieving that.

"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," team owner Arthur Blank said on the day of the signing.

There was additional incentive to getting Ryan officially in a Falcons uniform quickly.

Dimitroff and team president Rich McKay wrapped up negotiations on May 20, 2008, fifteen minutes prior to the deadline created that same day when league owners opted out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the player's union.

The multi-year deal that the Falcons and Ryan consummated would have been nearly impossible after the opt out.

With Ryan under contract, the franchise set its sights on the other 10 draft selections. Seventh-round tight end Keith Zinger was the second Falcon to join the fray, signing his contract on June 7.

Throughout June the Falcons worked methodically to get rookie head coach Mike Smith all the tools in his chest prior to camp opening. The diligence paid dividends when two more day-one selections, Sam Baker and Curtis Lofton, came to terms on July 25 - one day before the first practice of the first installment of Camp Smith.

The trend continued in 2009 when Dimitroff delivered all eight draft picks to training camp on August 1.

The most complicated signings, due to the slotting and bonus money in play, are often the first round draft picks. Precedent from the same slot in recent years, the complexion of contracts to players selected just before and after a team's draft choice and the prevailing market winds for a high-profile player at that draft choices position are all germane to contract discussions. But again, the Falcons delivered the talented Ole Miss defensive tackle two days before camp in 2009.

The charge to obtain a rookie draft pick's signature well before training camp begins in an effort to free the player's mind from contract negotiations and allow him to focus on football was set in Dimitroff's first two years on the job and has continued into his third draft class.

With the 2010 training camp set to begin in a little over a month, the Falcons have locked up five of their seven draft picks. Fifth-round wide receiver Kerry Meier and first-round linebacker Sean Weatherspoon remain unsigned.

Considering this front office's track record with their first two draft classes and the work they have done already, there is much reason for hope that all seven will be suited up in the 90-degree Flowery Branch heat on July 30.

Given the current status of other franchises in the NFC South, there's reason to believe the Falcons are ahead of the curve.

The Panthers, who signed their sixth player on Tuesday in sixth-round QB Tony Pike, have four players remaining unsigned, all top picks. Second-round quarterback Jimmy Clausen, third-round receivers Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, and fourth-round pass rusher Eric Norwood have yet to agree to deals with our I-85 rivals.

The story is similar in Tampa. The Buccaneers have five of their eight contracts sealed, but deals still remain uncompleted with their top selections of first- and second-round defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and second-round wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Seventh-round linebacker Cody Grimm is also still unsigned.

The Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints seem to be in the most precarious position in the division. Of their six 2010 draft picks, none have been signed. For the Saints, it's the second year in a row they've been down to the wire with their rookie selections.

In 2009 New Orleans signed two of their four picks - safety Chip Vaughn (fourth round) and punter Thomas Morstead (fifth round) - one day before training camp began. First-round defensive back Malcolm Jenkins was an 11-day holdout. Fourth-round linebacker Stanley Arnoux suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury during rookie minicamp and didn't complete his contract until September.

Last season the Saints were the last team in the NFL to sign their first rookie to a contract.

In the end, this league is built on wins, division titles and playoff berths. But it's certainly encouraging that the Falcons continue to demonstrate that they're not only a franchise on the rise, but also one intent on doing things the right way and ensuring their coaches and staff are afforded every opportunity to come out on top.

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