FLOWERY BRANCY, Ga. – Until the St. Louis Rams announce their plans for the No. 1 pick, nothing can relieve University of Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford's pre-draft anxiety.
Just ask Matt Ryan.
Atlanta's strong interest in Ryan wasn't a state secret heading into the 2008 draft. But picking at No. 3 overall, there were no guarantees that the player targeted as the Falcons' franchise quarterback would still be available. Ryan, too, could only wait to see what unfolded.
"You really have no control over where you're going to be the next five years, the situation you're entering or the coaches you're working with," Ryan said after a Thursday morning workout at Falcons headquarters. "That uncertainty is the most stressful part."
Coincidentally, St. Louis and Miami both passed on Ryan. Miami made Michigan tackle Jake Long the No. 1 overall pick, while the Rams chose Virginia defensive end Chris Long. Atlanta, though, was so worried that Baltimore would pull a blockbuster trade with St. Louis for the second pick that Falcons management discussed the possibility of its own draft-day trade-up.
Similar rumors are now swirling around the Rams and Cleveland. Browns general manager Tom Heckert Jr. said Thursday that his team has discussed trying to leap from No. 6 for the top pick. Cleveland would then choose Bradford, who is considered this year's top quarterback prospect.
Regardless of where he lands, this much is certain: Whichever club selects Bradford can only hope it was as thorough in its predraft scouting as Atlanta was with Ryan.
As desperate as the Rams and Browns are for a long-term quarterbacking solution, the Falcons were in even worse shape entering the 2008 draft. The franchise was reeling from the demise of Michael Vick, whose involvement in dogfighting led to a prison term and indefinite NFL suspension.
"At that point, we were down for the count," Falcons director of player personnel Les Snead said. "The team needed (a replacement). The city needed it. We were all a little wounded."
But that didn't guarantee Atlanta would choose Ryan.
Although Ryan was clearly the 2008 draft's top quarterback prospect, first-year Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff wasn't completely sold after a 15-minute interview at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"Though we had heard so many positive things about Matt's leadership, his comfort level and competitiveness, when he sat in front of us at the Combine there was nervousness and seemingly a little uncertainty with what was around the corner for him," Dimitroff said. "Quite honestly, I think everyone wanted to go in that room and have him blow us away. Matt didn't have that initial effect where we just dropped our pens and said there were no more notes or interviews that needed to be done.
"That's on us as well. Matt's a young guy who is a very competitive, smart individual. He has high expectations for himself. We were probably a little uncomfortable and nervous in our stance knowing we had to make the right decision. We wanted him to make it that much easier for us to come across as this star interview after two minutes."
That happened later after Atlanta's top brass traveled to Boston for a private interview and workout. Dimitroff, new head coach Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave and team owner Arthur Blank were wowed during a dinner with Ryan.
"We were putting the full-court press on him with five guys," Smith said. "That could be an intimidating situation for a draft-eligible player whether he's a junior or senior. We were firing questions at him and he handled it so well, not only the football ones but the other things that come along as it relates to being the leader as the quarterback. When we left that meeting, I felt like this is our guy."
Ryan, though, wasn't a lock for the Falcons just yet. Questions about Ryan's arm strength and penchant to force passes while at Boston College were two reasons Miami and St. Louis shied from drafting him. Some members of the Falcons still needed convincing that Ryan was a better option than defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, the other prospect being strongly considered with the third pick.
For Snead, that moment came on a Saturday as he watched college video of Ryan inside Atlanta's draft room.
"We were all debating, 'If you take a QB, it's a huge risk,' which it is," Snead said. "This is Thomas' first pick. If he takes a QB and he fails, Thomas may fail as a general manager. But I can remember texting Thomas and saying, 'Are we nuts to even be debating this guy?'"
Snead said he became sold watching Ryan excel at Boston College despite being surrounded by limited skill-position talent.
"He doesn't have a Brett Favre arm, but he has anticipation," Snead said. "As soon as he sets to throw, you look at the receivers and don't know where they're about to break. You've got to have that ability as a QB in this league to say, 'This is what I think the defense is going to do. This is where the routes are going. I'm putting the ball there. The receiver better get there.' He did that at BC. He's undermanned but wills his team to win."
After more Ryan vs. Dorsey debate, Dimitroff and Smith decided upon the former five days before the draft. Dimitroff then approached Blank for his blessing because of the high price tag involved and, in light of the Vick debacle, comfort in Ryan representing the Falcons brand. Ryan would ultimately receive a six-year, $72 million contract that included a then-rookie record $34.8 million guaranteed. He also is the main focus of the team's marketing efforts.
"As much as we coveted other people, i.e. Dorsey, we knew because of the (quarterback) position that we really needed to make this move," Dimitroff said.
Once the Rams didn't make that move and selected Chris Long, Atlanta's draft room erupted in celebration. Dimitroff got so carried away that he admits forgetting to tell Ryan he was picked after dialing his cell phone.
Said a laughing Dimitroff: "I basically said, 'Hey, how you doing?' He says, 'Things are good.' I kept talking and he's waiting on the other end of the line thinking, 'Are you picking me or calling to say hello?'"
Two years later, there's no doubt Atlanta made the right call. Ryan has quickly become one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks and guided the Falcons to their first consecutive winning seasons. Dorsey is floundering in Kansas City, while Chris Long has made only a modest impact with St. Louis.
Not only did they pass on Ryan, the Rams also didn't draft Mark Sanchez when available in 2009. Snead advises St. Louis doesn't make the same mistake again when it comes to Bradford.
"I'm a big Bradford guy," said Snead, who is entering his 12th season in Atlanta's front office. "He's accurate, he's big, he anticipates. I know (Oklahoma) runs a little bit of the spread (offense), but they do throw it vertically.
"They've got a lot of prospects coming out with a lot of different personalities. Those guys, you can tell they sincerely love (Bradford) and follow him. It doesn't matter if it's Gerald McCoy or Jermaine Gresham. Being a first-round pick as a quarterback is tough for a rookie, but I think he's got what it takes."
The Falcons would know.