Hearken back to the 2008 NFL Draft, if you would. You may remember an Atlanta Falcons team in shambles rising with a keening scream and a flash of flame, a phoenix created by a brilliant draft and one huge free agent signing. It was a glorious time, even if we didn't know it at that moment.
The next two drafts were less compelling. While the 2009 and 2010 drafts brought quality players, there was nothing transformative about either. In fact, they were distinctly complementary in nature, patiently building depth and adding starters on defense.
During those two years, you could be forgiven for wondering whether the offense was being neglected. The addition of Tony Gonzalez was huge, of course, but wide receivers were late rounders, running backs were ignored and the quarterback depth chart remained the same. It was easy to imagine that with a 13-3 record in 2010, the Falcons would elect to continue the beautifully plodding pace they'd cultivated, addressing key defensive needs and continuing to build depth as they moved toward a Super Bowl.
But the 2011 NFL Draft tells us a different story.
After the 2010 season, the Falcons clearly realized they could not take a giant step forward without improving the offense. The defense was crushed by the powerful Packers in the NFC Divisional Round, but the Packers were en fuego. Equally important was that when the Falcons fell behind, they could not generate the offensive firepower needed to mount a comeback.
It took many fans, including myself, a long time to realize that this truly would be the team's top priority in 2011. The Falcons have a ton of young, developing talent on defense, and even if not everyone pans out, it's likely to improve. On offense, Roddy White is 30, Tony Gonzalez is older and Michael Turner is also evincing the pounding he's taken over three seasons.
Faced with those realities, the Falcons took decisive action. Julio Jones is an immediate and gigantic upgrade on Michael Jenkins. Jacquizz Rodgers is a more durable Jerious Norwood who arguably is more skilled than Norwood ever was. Andrew Jackson is a fantastic blocker who could be opening lanes for Rodgers as a starter in the next year or two. All three of them--particularly Jones and Rodgers, of course--are likely upgrades. Jones and Rodgers make a predictable offense much more dynamic.
On the defensive side, the Falcons added a thumper at linebacker (Akeem Dent) a potential solid starter at defensive end with some upside as a pass rusher (Cliff Matthews). Looking at special teams and faced with a roller coaster career from Michael Koenen, the Falcons elected to pony up for him and took a reliable option in Matt Bosher.
Every single guy in this draft could either starter or be part of a rotation by 2012. They're impact players in the here and now--again, especially Jones and Rodgers--and they make the Falcons better in 2011. That's not by accident. The Falcons saw why they couldn't get over the hump in the playoffs and attempted to address it in one fell swoop. If they manage to get someone like Ray Edwards out of free agency to help out the pass rush, there's no reason to believe they won't be better build for the post-season.
How did so many of us fail to see this audacious draft coming? Speaking for myself, I assumed that we would see the front office stick closer to the 2008 and 2009 philosophies, building that needed depth and relying on the growth of existing players. But faced with the fact that it might not have been good enough for the offense, the Falcons blindsided us with a head-spinning draft. It might not be a bad idea to be sitting down for free agency, once that arrives.
It was an awesome draft. It also gives the Falcons a better chance to win in 2011 than the alternative approach would have. As fans, I'm not sure we can ask for much more than that.