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Ryan's the 1

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK-- --By tomorrow afternoon, Matt Ryan's credit limit should increase substantially. That pearly smile will stretch a bit wider. And he'll instantly become the public face of some NFL team, a role model in some NFL city. Maybe Atlanta or Baltimore. Maybe Kansas City or New York.

"Your guess is probably as good as mine," says Ryan, the top quarterback prospect in this weekend's NFL draft.

It would be somewhat dishonest of me to tell you that Matt Ryan is a can't-miss quarterback prospect, that he's the Ravens' sure-fire bet-the-farm pick in tomorrow's first round and that he might represent the future of football in Baltimore. And anyone else who tries to tell you this - whether they're a Ravens official, a bar-stool pundit or a fan with a blog - is also lying, maybe to you, maybe to themselves. Hotshot prospects have a way of making very intelligent football people look like they played years without a helmet.

But I do feel comfortable offering this: Ryan is a better bet than Kyle Boller was five years ago and has the potential to affect a franchise more than Troy Smith, who was picked by the Ravens in the fifth round last year. When you factor in the Ravens' immediate dire need at quarterback, you're faced with this truth: If there's any way they can nab Ryan tomorrow, they absolutely must.

Any other option - whether it's gambling on a second-tier quarterback in the second round or plugging the hole with a free agent - is simply delaying the inevitable, again putting the most important position on the back burner for the indefinite future.

"At the end of the day, I don't know what they're going to do," the former Boston College player says of the Ravens. "It depends on who's around, I'd guess."

Ryan has at least four hungry suitors - the Falcons with the No. 3 pick, the Chiefs at No. 5, the Jets at 6 and the Ravens at 8. Of the group, the Ravens have kept their lips sealed the tightest about their interest and their intentions. Even Ryan isn't sure where he stands.

He met with Ravens coaches and team officials two weeks ago in Boston - general manager Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting, coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. It was the final team Ryan met with.

"I enjoyed getting to sit and talk with those guys. ... I think they've got the right mind-set down there to turn things around, win games," he says. "I was very impressed in meeting with them."

But Ryan said he left the Ravens' appointment with the same uncertain feeling that trailed him out of other meetings with other teams. Which is why absolutely nothing will surprise him tomorrow.

"You leave these meetings looking for some type of feedback, 'Hey, that was a great workout, Matt,' or 'You did a great job in the interview process,' " he says. "You get nothing."

And what little they do offer, you're never sure what to trust. For example, the only team that brought Ryan to its city for a visit was the Chiefs. And the only team owner who spoke with Ryan was Atlanta's Arthur Blank (Ryan joked yesterday that he assured Blank that he's not into dogfighting). Does this mean the Chiefs and Falcons are especially interested in Ryan - or especially interesting in misleading other teams?

For all the mock drafts, all the experts, all the round-the-clock coverage, the truth is, no one really knows. Least of all the draft prospects. Jake Long, who signed with Miami this week and will be the No. 1 pick tomorrow, said he had no idea where he was on the Dolphins' draft board. If he didn't know, you can imagine the uncertainty a guy like Ryan carries into tomorrow.

Ryan was here in New York on April 17 watching a Red Sox-Yankees game when he heard that Ravens quarterback Steve McNair was retiring. His initial thought: "Maybe they are going to look for a quarterback."

His second thought: "Maybe not."

"I think it doesn't really change anything," he says. "They still have a couple of quarterbacks down there. I think if they were looking to take one before, they probably still are. And if they weren't, maybe they aren't."

The Ravens love to boast about their draft-day strategy, selecting the best player available regardless of position. It has certainly worked well for them, but make no mistake, it's a luxury - and not necessarily one they can afford this year.

This time around, the Ravens happen to have a huge draft-day need, and they have a great first-round position and they just might have the opportunity to select a quarterback who can affect this team for years to come. The stars don't often line up like this.

Ryan has the size, the intelligence and the passion. Sometimes that translates into an NFL quarterback, sometimes it doesn't. I'm not going to lie to you: There's plenty of risk involved.

Ryan says he's confident he can play at the next level, and he's eager to prove himself. He just has no clue to which team he'll eventually report.


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