Matt Ryan deserves elite QB tag

Although he threw for fewer yards in his second season, Atlanta's Matt Ryan still makes the cut on John Clayton's elite QB list. Ryan has 6,356 passing yards and 38 TD passes in his career. Fernando Medina/US Presswire

With Peyton Manning's height, Tom Brady's style and Drew Brees' smarts, Matt Ryan had the look of an elite quarterback the first time he stepped onto the field in Atlanta Falcons colors. A 20-10 record as a starter followed.

But young quarterbacks have growing pains, and Ryan wasn't immune. His completion percentage dropped from 61.1 percent as a rookie in 2008 to 58.3 against a harder second-year schedule. His passing yards dropped from 3,440 to 2,916, partially because of missing pieces in the offense and the two games Ryan missed because of a toe injury. His yards per attempt also fell, from 7.93 yards to 6.47.

Ryan shook off the disappointment of his nine-win 2009 by taking two weeks off after the season, then becoming even more of a student of the game. While the elite quarterbacks were slugging it out late in the playoffs, Ryan -- one of the league's more studious players -- studied the elite.

"I looked at five different teams and tried to pick up a lot of different things those teams do," said Ryan, 25, who already makes the cut on my list of elite QBs (see right). "I looked at five of the best quarterbacks in the league."

From Brees, Ryan learned the art of patience. The New Orleans Saints QB is a master at throwing accurate checkdowns. The Manning tapes educated Ryan on the Indianapolis Colts' no-huddle attack and the need to throw precisely. No quarterback is asked to throw more high-risk, high-reward passes than Philip Rivers, so Ryan learned from the San Diego Chargers QB's tapes about throwing outside the numbers to tall receivers along the sidelines.

Ryan grabbed Aaron Rodgers' video because he's amazed at the arm of the Green Bay Packers quarterback. He also studied how Rodgers excels at throwing accurate short passes underneath coverage, particularly from a three-step drop. Those tapes also reminded him of Brees, and those kinds of throws will be a theme for Ryan and the Falcons' offense this season.

With the return of receiver Harry Douglas to the slot and the second season of Tony Gonzalez at tight end, the Falcons want to improve their short passing game. Ryan ranked 14th in quarterback rating on throws of 10 yards or shorter; he completed 59.6 percent of his passes that traveled 11 to 20 yards.

The New England Patriots tapes were of particular interest to Ryan. Although many peg Ryan as a Manning clone, Ryan considers himself more of a Brady-style quarterback.

"Peyton has his feet constantly moving," Ryan said. "My feet move more like Tom. Watching Tom, he slings it."

Ryan's arm strength has impressed those who have watched his offseason workouts. Like Brady, Ryan dedicated himself to the weight room, working on strengthening the core muscles in the middle of his body and adding more leg strength. As a result, Ryan's throws are coming out of his hands crisper and with more velocity.

"He is throwing the ball harder," wide receiver Roddy White said. "I've never seen a quarterback actually work that hard in the weight room. He's getting the ball out quick, and it has a little more mustard on it."

The NFL has become a league of the elite quarterbacks, creating a have and have-not situation. It's gotten to the point that the elite quarterbacks beat the non-elite QBs about 80 percent of the time, according to my calculations. Ryan is only 3-7 against elites in his two seasons. To beat an elite, you must study an elite.

"It takes time [for quarterbacks] with regards to how a defensive coordinator presents things, and it takes time to see a number of cycles before you get a feel of what defenses are doing," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "It becomes a chess match."

But don't be surprised to see Ryan sling it out against the NFC elites late in the playoffs. As he did in his rookie season, Ryan will face fewer elite QBs in 2010. Only five elite QBs are on the Falcons' schedule. And one of those elites, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, is suspended for the teams' Sept. 12 opener in Pittsburgh.

Plus, things are coming together in the Falcons' offense. White, no longer embroiled in a contract dispute, has worked with Ryan the entire offseason. Running back Michael Turner is trimmer and healthier and should be better than last season, and Douglas' return to slot receiver should make Atlanta more efficient. Also, the Falcons plan to use more no-huddle offense, which should cater to Ryan's skills.

So expect Ryan to dazzle in Year 3. Trust me, he's elite.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.