IT WAS the perfect storm for a monster payday: A quarterback drafted third overall by a team desperate for some positive p.r., with an agent famous for pushing. That's how the richest rookie contract in NFL history—Matt Ryan's six-year, $66 million deal, with $34.75 million guaranteed and an additional $6 million in incentives possible—got done in Atlanta last week. But inside the football business it was not a popular signing. Both veteran players and club officials believe salaries for high-drafted rookies are out of control. Ryan's per-year deal is 28% higher than last year's third pick, Browns tackle Joe Thomas. "It's a little disheartening," NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said. "It makes it tough for a guy who's proven himself to say, 'I want that kind of money,' when the owners, all they're going to say is, 'Well, you weren't a first-round pick.'"
The Ryan deal, nearly $1 million more per year than 2007 top pick JaMarcus Russell got from the Raiders, is a clear sign that teams can't police themselves when it comes to rookie salaries. In the last six months the Falcons have seen Michael Vick go to prison for his role in a dogfighting ring, watched first-year coach Bobby Petrino bolt for Arkansas with three games left in the '07 season and been jilted by Bill Parcells. No wonder that when the Falcons decided on Ryan, president Rich McKay called Ryan's agent, Tom Condon, and said, "You know where we are. Can you do this early?'' Condon had the edge, and he used it.
There's little question that when owners and players sit down to redo their collective bargaining agreement—the teams voted last week to opt out of the current deal after the 2010 season—a rookie wage scale will be on the table. But NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw is on record as loving splashy rookie deals, believing they have a trickle-down effect on veteran salaries. He has some disciples too. Cleveland wideout Braylon Edwards told SI, " Peyton Manning's got to love the Ryan deal, because it just means eventually he's going to get paid more. If the owners stop paying rookies, it's a dream to think they're just going to hand the money to the veterans.''