Time to lock up Matt Ryan for long haul

The Atlanta Falcons should make Matt Ryan the highest-paid player in the NFL. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Everything I’ve seen out of Matt Ryan this season makes me think it’s his turn.

No, I’m not saying it’s Ryan’s turn to win the Super Bowl, although it might be. I’m not even saying it’s time for Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons to win a playoff game, although I think they probably will.

I’m simply saying it’s time -- or soon will be -- for the Falcons to make Ryan the highest-paid player in the NFL.

The fifth-year quarterback is blossoming. People are talking about him as the early favorite for MVP. It makes sense on a football level. It also makes sense on every level the Falcons are all about.

They preach continuity. They preach character. They also want a new stadium around 2017.

Go ahead and give Ryan a contract for a dollar more than the five-year, $100 million deal New Orleans’ Drew Brees signed in the summer. And do it fast.

The undefeated Falcons have a bye after Sunday’s home game against Oakland. If general manager Thomas Dimitroff is half as smart as I think he is -- and I think he’s very smart -- he’d use that week to work out an extension for Ryan.

I know that may not be realistic or possible. Ryan is a private and focused guy, and he probably wouldn’t want the distraction of a new contract in the middle of the season.

But the Falcons shouldn’t wait too long to pull this off. If Dimitroff hasn’t done so already, the day after the Falcons wrap up their season, he should be on the phone to agent Tom Condon about a deal that will wrap up his quarterback for the next five or six years.

Ryan’s contract runs through 2013, but there is no way the Falcons should let him get any closer to free agency. Just look at how the waiting game didn’t translate into on-field success for Brees and the Saints. It even divided New Orleans fans.

Speaking of Brees, you might argue my point that Ryan should get a larger contract. I understand that. Yeah, Brees has won a Super Bowl. So has Peyton Manning, who has the second-biggest contract at $19.25 million per year. To date, Ryan hasn’t won anything, except for a lot of regular-season games.

But Condon, who also represents Brees and Manning, is going to argue that Ryan deserves more money. That's Condon’s job. But it’s also a valid point.

Brees was 33 when he signed his new deal. Manning was 35, coming off neck surgery and since has turned 36. To some degree, the Saints and Broncos were paying for what Brees and Manning did in the past.

Ryan is only 27. He has been paid nicely under the terms of his rookie deal, which was for six years and $63.7 million.

But it's easy to make the case that Ryan deserves more because he still has so much upside. He has been showing it every week, and the Falcons know it.

They finally have made this Ryan’s team. Under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the Falcons have become much more of a passing team. They’re letting Ryan throw deep and, although critics once said that wasn’t a strength, he’s thriving.

Fans in Atlanta are more excited about the Falcons than they ever have been. Owner Arthur Blank knows he has a good thing going with Ryan, Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. Blank has visions of a new retractable-roof stadium in downtown Atlanta and you can bet he envisions it packed every Sunday.

The way to make sure that happens is to stay ahead of the curve. Lock up Ryan before his play drives up the price tag even more.

Sure, it’s complicated any time you talk about a contract for a franchise quarterback. But this one doesn’t have to be as complicated as most. The Falcons know they want Ryan for the long haul, and he seems very comfortable with the organization and the city. Condon has established the high end of the market with Brees and Manning.

Dimitroff and Condon have a good relationship -- they got Ryan’s rookie deal done in May 2008, back at a time when rookie deals didn’t get done until July, August or September. There’s no real reason why a new Ryan deal couldn’t be done at any time.

And, although it’s important, let’s not get too caught up in the salary cap. The Falcons aren’t flush with cap space. They already have $114 million committed toward 2013, which would put them roughly $10 million below the cap. That’s not including next year’s rookie class or any of their own free agents they want to keep (Brent Grimes and Sam Baker?).

But Ryan already is scheduled to count $12 million against the 2013 cap, and that number could go up if the quarterback meets some not-likely-to-be-earned incentives in his current contract.

There’s plenty of room to get a deal done even before we begin speculating after the season that defensive end John Abraham (scheduled to count $6.25 million against the 2013 cap) could retire or that running back Michael Turner ($7.5 million for next season) could be gone or playing for a lot less.

But you don’t even need to think too much about the likes of Grimes, Baker, Abraham or Turner at this point. If a new deal for Ryan is structured properly, his cap figure could even drop for next year. Brees’ cap hit for this year is only $10.4 million.

This prospective deal really is all about Ryan. He’s a quarterback just entering his prime, and that drives his value so high that Blank may have to open his retractable wallet.

But that would be worthwhile because it would secure Ryan, the future of the Falcons, until he’s at the age when Brees and Manning were getting paid largely for past deeds.