If the third round is where things start to go wrong for the Falcons in the average draft, the fourth round is where things get worse. Atlanta has had seven fourth round picks since 2008, and out of all of those, they have just one above average contributor and one young player with promise.
The fourth round isn't where you nab a ton of starters, of course, with one three year study finding around a 22% hit rate there. In general, I think it would be fair to say that only about a quarter of your fourth rounders will do well in the NFL, if you're lucky, and the Falcons haven't been.
We begin to understand the problem when we look at the years where the Falcons had no fourth rounder, by the way. The team's success rate gets dicier and dicier as you go deeper into the draft, but free agent misses, a lack of draft picks due to trades up, and the occasional disastrous bust conspire to do more damage than simply missing on a fourth rounder.
Anyways, on to those fourth rounders.
2009: DE Lawrence Sidbury
I won't lie to you and tell you I didn't love Lawrence Sidbury, because I genuinely loved Lawrence Sidbury. He was a quality athlete and looked like a promising pass rusher, but whether he simply never developed or the coaching staff in Atlanta never really gave him the chance, Sidbury finished his four year Falcons career with zero starts, five sacks, and no real forward progress. He has spent the last two years with the Buccaneers, where he's played very little, and has to be considered a disappointing pick, sadly.
2010: C Joe Hawley
What a weird career Hawley had in Atlanta. He played in 15 games in his rookie season, started 12 in 2011, played in just six in 2012, started seven in 2013, and played in and started four in 2014. Injuries, a suspension and the vagaries of the team's coaching staff played roles in that, but on balance, Hawley was a competent interior lineman who had flashes of excellent play. I predicted when he signed a two year pact prior to 2014 that he wouldn't necessarily be the starter both years, and it unfortunately played out that way, with Hawley winding up starting 14 games for Tampa Bay last year.
When you consider the value of a fourth rounder, Hawley was a pretty good pick. He just didn't grab as many starters as we would have liked.
2013: DE Malliciah Goodman, TE Levine Toilolo
Yes, it's true: The Falcons had no fourth round picks for three seasons in a row. When they finally got some back, they wound up landing two role players.
Goodman has shown me very small flashes of being a tremendous run stopper, but at age 26 he's never been more than a part-time player, even if he technically started 10 games back in 2014. It's anyone's guess what the new coaching staff thinks of him, but at best he's a rotational player at defensive end, and he might not make the team. I think there's more talent here than Goodman has had the opportunity to show, but he's running out of time to prove that.
Levine Toilolo, meanwhile, is still just 24 years old, but seems to have maxed out his role in this Falcons' offense. He's simply not fast or savvy enough in his routes to get consistent separation, he hasn't proven to be a red zone target despite his height, and the Falcons have Jacob Tamme ahead of him and seem to be scouting rookie tight ends, so his role may diminish even further. His saving grace is that he's a solid blocker at the position.
2014: RB Devonta Freeman, LB Prince Shembo
Freeman is the biggest success story of this team's fourth rounds to date. Despite fading as a runner in the second half of last year, Freeman put together a hugely successful second season in 2015, scoring a ton of touchdowns, proving himself as a receiver out of the backfield, and generally looking like the best back on the team by a comfortable margin. Even if he's never that productive again, I'd call him a successful draft pick.
Shembo, meanwhile, might go down as the team's worst selection. He was a character risk coming out of Notre Dame after being linked to (but never charged with or convicted of) a sexual assault of a woman who later committed suicide, turned in a solid but unspectacular rookie season, and then was charged with kicking his girlfriend's dog to death, at which point the Falcons promptly released him. He hasn't played in the NFL since.
2015: WR Justin Hardy
As is my custom, I'm going to reserve judgment on Hardy, who was inactive for the first part of the year before picking up the playbook and making some impressive catches in the second half. He's got promise and should be the team's present and future third receiver, and has a good chance of delivering value in that role. I'm bullish on his long-term outlook.
With the exception of Freeman and hopefully Hardy, there were no above average, multi-year starters in the fourth round for Thomas Dimitroff and company. It's fair to argue that this was the team's last productive round, but hey, we're not done yet.