Despite not having one star player among this list, the number 54 was worn by several fan favorites. These players were hard working linebackers that can play multiple positions. They were mostly middle to late-round draft picks, which makes their contributions even more inspiring. Here are the players that wore number 54 for the Atlanta Falcons.
ILB: Grady Allen
Allen was always considered as one of the hardest working players during his prime. Although he went un-drafted in the 1968 draft, Allen was going to find his niche somewhere. At Texas A&M, Allen was team captain and earned all SEC honors for his outstanding production. He never started for Atlanta during his five year career. Allen was a key reserve through stepping up in any situation and fulfilling the coach's demands. His career ended in 1972, as the continuous physical punishment wore on him. Allen was only 225 pounds, which makes him extremely undersized as an inside linebacker. Older fans will remember him fondly as a true fan favorite.
OLB/MLB: Chris Draft
The fan favorites continue, as Draft was another player that fans genuinely appreciated. After being cut by Chicago and San Francisco, he was given an opportunity by Atlanta in 2000. Draft’s versatility was shown early in his career through playing as a weak-side linebacker to start his actual NFL career. He was very athletic and became the perfect fit as an inside linebacker within the 3-4 scheme. The former Stanford Cardinal flourished in Ed Donatell’s 3-4 defense through 2002 and 2003. The coaching staff decided to convert the defense into a 4-3 scheme in 2004, while Draft was assigned as the starting middle linebacker. Injuries hindered his progression, but it became evident that he couldn’t adjust to a 4-3 scheme playing as the lone linebacker inside.
His lack of size made it difficult for him to evade blockers. Draft would get overpowered by opposing fullbacks far too often. Atlanta chose to not resign him, as they invested in Ed Hartwell, which proved to a dreadful decision. Although his career in Atlanta ended poorly, Draft will always be considered as a solid linebacker. He ended up playing for Carolina, St. Louis, and Buffalo. Eventually, the former sixth round pick retired in 2010. That is the resume of a true overachiever, especially after being cut by two teams in two seasons to start off his career.
MLB: Ruffin Hamilton
Hamilton was mostly a backup for Atlanta between 1997-1999. Green Bay selected him in the fifth round of the 1994 draft. In vintage Falcons fashion, they gave Hamilton one final opportunity following two seasons out of the league. He proved to be a decent backup, although failed to show any potential to be the ideal replacement for Jessie Tuggle. Hamilton was out of the league by 2000.
ILB: Fulton Kuykendall
On a list of several fan favorites, "Kapitan Krazy" surpasses them all. Kuykendall played ten seasons for Atlanta and was one of the main leaders for several great defenses. Nothing was more significant than the 1977 defense, which allowed only 129 points in 14 games and was first in several key defensive categories (points, run defense, etc.). Kuykendall struggled with injuries, due to his reckless style of constantly taking on blockers and never backing away from any type of head-on collision.
While he only played four out of ten full seasons, the former sixth round pick will always be appreciated for always being fearless and providing tremendous leadership. Kuykendall ended his career in 1985 with San Francisco. It was an overall impressive eleven-year career for a player that was always considered undersized at 225 pounds.
OLB: Robert Lyles
The long-time Houston Oiler was traded to Atlanta during the 1990 season. Lyles immediately started for Atlanta, as the team was going through a rebuilding process. The former fifth round pick played one more season, but contributed considerably for the infamous 1991 playoff team. He decided to retire after that season and decided to start coaching. Lyles was a head coach for multiple AFL teams in Los Angeles and Georgia.
OLB: Stephen Nicholas
Nicholas wasn’t quite the biggest fan favorite, but he will always be considered as a solid two-down linebacker. After two years of fulfilling a backup role, Nicholas became the starting strong-side linebacker in 2009. The former fourth round pick never produced gaudy tackle numbers or forced many turnovers. You were always going to receive consistent tackling from him. Nicholas shined in 2012, although faded badly when he was given extensive coverage responsibilities.
Vernon Davis burnt him on numerous occasions, which will always be remembered from the disheartening NFC championship game. Nicholas was released after the 2013 season, as the Falcons were looking to develop Joplo Bartu at the strong-side position. His career appears to be over at this point. Despite the sour ending to his career, his relentless motor and consistent tackling should be appreciated more rather than criticism of his limitations in coverage. The organization did a poor job of not addressing the middle linebacker position, as Akeem Dent was a two-down linebacker at best. With the league consisting of pass-first teams, the idea of having multiple two-down linebackers in your starting lineup is a horrific personnel decision.
ILB: Jesse Solomon
The well-traveled linebacker played for five teams in ten years. Solomon was constantly around the ball, as his production was consistently over 100 tackles. After having contract issues with Dallas and Tampa Bay, Atlanta signed him in 1992. Solomon excelled in the 3-4 scheme, as he produced 147 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Similar to Draft, he wasn’t an ideal fit as a middle linebacker in the 4-3 scheme. Atlanta switched to the 4-3 scheme in 1993 and Solomon couldn’t make the same impact. He wasn’t re-signed and finished his career with Miami in 1994.
OLB: Tyler Starr
The current number 54 on the Falcons will face stiff competition for a roster spot this season. He’ll need to show significant improvement to overtake the likes of O’Brien Schofield and Stansly Maponga on the depth chart. One off-season under Dan Quinn could work wonders for the high-motor pass rusher. Staar is relatively raw and needs to work on his technique extensively.
MLB: Artie Ulmer
From 2001 to 2005, Ulmer was the main special teams ace. He was considered not fast enough to be a starting-caliber middle linebacker. Ulmer found his niche on special teams and became a reliable player through that capacity. He retired in 2005 following a respectable seven-year career. Ulmer played for Denver and San Francisco, before being signed by Atlanta.
Draft and Nicholas certainly deserve consideration based on their longevity as starters. For any player to start four consecutive seasons and be considered as a solid player (at minimum) deserves praise. In the end, the best player to wear number 54 has to be Kuykendall. His longevity surpasses both players, along with being an enforcer for several great defenses. You can't recall many middle or inside linebackers in Falcon history, who made sideline to sideline plays like him. Kuykendall is undoubtedly the greatest number 54 in Falcons history.