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With QB battles heating up, Ryan looks to make statement in Atlanta

Just as summer is creeping to an end, so are quarterback competitions around the league.

Chicago already has anointed Kyle Orton -- who went 10-5 as a rookie for the Bears in 2005 -- as the starter over Rex Grossman.

San Francisco appears ready to hand Mike Martz's offense to his former Lions quarterback, J.T. O'Sullivan.

Batlimore seems to be leaning toward Troy Smith, who is better equipped than Kyle Boller to play behind a leaky offensive line.

And Arizona continues wrestling with whether to go with the favorite Matt Leinart or the veteran Kurt Warner.

But maybe the most intriguing decision with the longest-range implications involves the one in Atlanta with the Falcons' $72 million quarterback, Matt Ryan.

Atlanta hosts Tennessee on Friday night in what amounts to Ryan's audition for the starting job. It is no accident that Ryan gets his turn to start in the most significant preseason game, the dress rehearsal for the regular-season opener.

The job is set up for Ryan to win. But it doesn't mean he will clinch it.

If Ryan plays well against a tough Tennessee defense, makes few mistakes and proves he's ready, then Atlanta will be prepared to hand its starting quarterback job in Week 1 against Detroit to Ryan.

But if Ryan struggles against Tennessee, makes multiple mistakes and shows he is not ready, then Atlanta will be prepared to turn to veteran Chris Redman for the regular-season opener.

What constitutes struggling also is open to interpretation, much like the judgement of the quality of the Falcons' offensive line. But Atlanta's line, much maligned throughout the offseason for the eight different combinations it lined up last season, might turn out to be better than some expect.

Left tackle Sam Baker, the bookend first-round pick to Ryan, has shown signs of becoming a quality lineman. Left guard Justin Blalock is last year's second-round pick. Center Todd McClure is an experienced veteran starter. Right guard will be one of two scrappy guards, Kynan Forney or Harvey Dahl. And veteran right tackle Todd Weiner has recovered nicely from a torn ACL and is ready to man the position opposite Baker. It is a combination that is good enough to protect Ryan or Redman.

But that is a choice the Falcons will not make until after Friday night's pivotal -– and how often is that word used at this time of year -- preseason game.

Holy Hokies

Rookie wide receivers usually struggle to make an impact. But two rookie receivers, Josh Morgan and Eddie Royal -- former teammates at Virginia Tech -- are vying to buck the trend.

Morgan, a sixth-round pick, has caught nine passes for 182 yards, some of the league's top totals this summer. He is bidding to become a starting receiver in the Niners' offense.

Royal, a second-round pick, has caught four passes for 80 yards this preseason while staking a claim to a starting job in Denver's offense.

No shock that Morgan and Royal are shining; the surprise is that it has happened so soon. But maybe it shouldn't be so surprising.

At Virginia Tech, Morgan and Royal combined for 241 receptions, 3,595 yards and 28 touchdowns. Their numbers there were very similar. Morgan caught 122 passes for 1,817 yards and 16 touchdowns; Royal caught 119 passes for 1,778 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Extra points

» One of the first teams to express interest in Joe Horn after the Falcons released him on Tuesday was the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars have some questions at the wide receiver position. Veterans Jerry Porter and Reggie Williams are coming off surgery, Matt Jones has legal issues, and a veteran such as Horn could be useful.

» NFL teams are not obligated to trim their rosters from 80 to 75 players until August 26. But already the NFL has seen some notable players cut, including Horn, safety John Lynch, quarterback Chad Pennington and tight end Marcus Pollard. If that's any preview of the two pending cut-down days, August is going to provide some late-summer fireworks.

» There is increasing chatter around the league that Green Bay still will wind up signing a veteran quarterback to back up Aaron Rodgers. One prime candidate could be Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, whom Tampa Bay might release after its fourth preseason game.

» Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on July 22 about the chances of Cincinnati re-signing wide receiver Chris Henry: "I'm not interested. I don't think it would be productive for our football team. You have to be a productive part to be an NFL player, and there's responsibilities to being an NFL player. It's a privilege, it's not a right. There's a lot that comes with being an NFL football player." Apparently someone in Cincinnati with more clout than Lewis disagreed. And so Henry already has caused division within the team.

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