Shortly after last season, the Falcons pronounced that signing quarterback Matt Ryan to a long-term contract extension was the franchise’s No. 1 priority.
The quarterback market was shifting and there was one major surprise bombshell when the 49ers signed unproven quarterback Jimmy Garropolo to a five-year, $137.5 million deal, which averaged $27.5 million annually.
The Falcons were already looking at a guarantee that would need to surpass the $92 million that Matthew Stafford received from the Lions with his six-year, $135 million deal in August of 2017.
“We talked a lot about being aggressive before free agency, thinking we wanted to see how it was going to settle with a couple of other markers, (and) you know who they (were),” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said during an interview on SiriusXM NFL radio on Wednesday. “A couple of other quarterbacks that were really high in the market, what they were and, respectively, what they had accomplished.”
The Falcons opened negotiations with co-heads of Creative Artists Agency, Tom Condon and Todd France, at the NFL scouting combine in February, a few weeks after being eliminated from the playoffs.
If the Falcons could wrap a deal up quickly, they would clear some salary cap space to pursue free agents.
In the meantime, the Falcons assessed the free agency market and decided that there were not any major-market value players that they needed to pursue. They focused on lower-budget players and continued to work on getting Ryan’s deal done.
In the meantime, Condon had to finish getting Drew Brees’ deal done with the Saints. Then, there was the matter of the Kirk Cousins’ derby.
Cousins has been franchise-tagged by the Redskins for the past two seasons and was commanding major interest on the open market. He eventually signed with the Vikings and his three-year deal was fully guaranteed at $84 million, which averaged $28 million annually, topping the Garoppolo average.
“We were looking at everything, right,” Dimitroff said. “We were going to wait until free agency. Then free agency came and went. We were knocked right up against the draft. So, we decided that we were really going to wait until after the draft to really hit it home.”
From the end of February through the end of April, talks continued.
“There was a lot of back-and-forth over that period,” said a person familiar with the negotiations.
After the draft was over, the parties agreed to meet at the Arthur Blank’s offices in Buckhead on Wednesday, May 2.
“We brought in Tom Condon and Todd France, who is right here in Atlanta along with Jay Neinkark, myself, Nick Polk and Chase Falivene,” Dimitroff said. “We had six people in the room and man, we just went on for hours and hours. I thought it was really good and productive negotiation.”
Nienkark is a former NFL executive and cap specialists with the Cardinals and Seahawks, who keeps a low profile these days working for CAA.
Polk is the Falcons’ director of football operations and main salary cap manager. Falivene is the team’s salary cap and player personnel assistant.
The almost 12-hour session started at 10 a.m. and went to about 9:45 p.m. Both sides felt they had a deal that would work. There was one last person to be sold.
The CAA group went over to Ryan’s house to present the deal to him. The next morning, on Thursday, Ryan agreed to the deal.
“I thought we were very honest and direct with each other,” Dimitroff said. “We knew Matt wanted to be here for a long time and we wanted him here for a long time. We knew that it was going to be a lucrative deal of course. Going into it realistic instead of pie in the sky on either side, really allowed us to get the deal done.”
Ryan got excited when he was informed about the deal, but want to sleep on it before agreeing to it.
“My days are running together, I found out last week that it was close to being done and I was excited about that,” Ryan said. “Fortunately, with the twins, we are not going anywhere. It was just a quick drive down the street to get it done.”
On May 4, Ryan went, with twins John and Marshall and wife Sarah, to sign the contract, which made him the highest-paid player in the history of the NFL.
In the end, the Falcons ended up with a five-year extension worth $150 million, with a total of $100 million guaranteed.
Ryan’s original contract, which was signed on May 20, 2008 had a cash value of $63.7 million. His contract was renegotiated on July 26, 2013 and that deal had a cash value of $113.7 million and with the $150 million contract extension, Ryan will make $327.4 million, according to NFLPA documents.
“I didn’t think it was complicated as a deal, what is complicated is that you have to very creative with how you put it all together,” Dimitroff said.
The Falcons had to release players this offseason to make room for Ryan’s contract. The most notable releases were defensive tackle Dontari Poe, defensive Adrian Clayborn and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel.
“There were some tough moves made this year and there will be some tough moves made next year with a deal like this,” Dimitroff said. “It’s substantial at a lot of levels.”
The Falcons believe they will be able to find younger and cheaper players to surround Ryan. They also plan to look at extending the contracts of left tackle Jake Matthews and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
“I am a believer that you can sign an elite type of quarterback to elite type of money and you can still continue to build your team properly in the right way and get the right people taken care who are deserving of the higher levels or money at the respective positions,” Dimitroff said. “I just think you have to be creative.”
The Falcons coaching staff and their ability to develop young players will be a key part of the franchise moving forward.
“As a head coach (Dan Quinn) is willing, able and open to playing young talent,” Dimitroff said. “You can’t pay all of the veterans out of your ears. We know that. You have to have young guys who are adept and open. We have to be open as coaches and management to play them.”
Ryan, who turns 33 on Thursday, will be 37 at the end of the current contract. He talked about playing 15 to 20 years, which would carry him into his 40s.
“That was my hope when I got drafted here that I could play at a high level,” Ryan said. “Kind of be that quarterback that a franchise leans on for 15, 20 years. That’s kind of still where my head is at. I work hard every day to try and be that player. To try and be a consistent, good player for this team as often as I can.”
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