With the draft rapidly approaching, we're taking a look back at the draft classes under Thomas Dimitroff and this front office since 2008 and seeing how successful they were, round by round. We begin at the top.
2008: QB Matt Ryan & T Sam Baker
If you want a perfect encapsulation of the kind of mixed success Thomas Dimitroff and friends have enjoyed in Atlanta, you need look no further than their initial first round.
On one hand, you have Matt Ryan, arguably the best quarterback in franchise history (Steve Bartkowski and Michael Vick are the only two other contenders) and certainly the one who will finish with every single franchise record. Here was a man who was successful despite being thrown immediately into the fire, and despite his lousiest year ever in 2015, he was still an above average player at his position. We can argue about where his career is headed, but he's an obvious success in the NFL, and one of Dimitroff's finest draft picks ever, even if it wasn't a terribly difficult choice with the #3 overall pick.
On the other hand, you have Sam Baker, who the Falcons traded up to get and proved to be a disappointing player when all was said and done. He enjoyed a fine season during the Falcons' 2012 run, but mixed some semi-effective stretches with injuries and even benchings in his other seasons. The huge contract Thomas Dimitroff and company handed him after 2012 looks like an absolute disaster in hindsight, and it didn't look particularly great at the time. Baker retired from the NFL this past year.
2009: DT Peria Jerry
Jerry was a little old coming out of college, but he had been an effective player and looked very good in preseason. When I say he suffered a catastrophic knee injury and was never the same, I mean catastrophic and truly never even close to the same again.
Jerry retired after the 2013 season with just 5.5 career sacks to his name, and while there were flashes where he looked like the potentially dominant interior force he was supposed to be for Atlanta, he generally just muddled through his five seasons with the Falcons. I often wonder what he might have been had he not gotten injured, but there's no sense in dwelling on that.
2010: LB Sean Weatherspoon
Spoooon is back in Atlanta now, but he's unlikely to make the kind of impact he did when he first arrived in Atlanta. After a successful rookie season where he started just five games, 'Spoon was the team's best linebacker in 2011 and 2012, picking up over 200 tackles, 7 sacks, 12 pass deflections, and a handful of great spoon-related celebrations. He was fast, he was athletic, and he was tenacious, and it looked like he'd be an impact player for a long time.
Unfortunately, that's as good as it got for Weatherspoon in Atlanta. Injuries limited him to seven games in 2013, he missed the entire 2014 season, and he left for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 as a free agent. I'd love to see 'Spoon make an impact in 2016 and beyond, but more than likely his memorable two-year stint in 2011 and 2012 is going to be the highlight of his career, and it's a shame he couldn't have stayed healthy enough to be another first round success story.
2011: WR Julio Jones
This would be easily Dimitroff's best pick if it wasn't for the associated price tag. The Falcons traded up to get Julio at a cost of their 2011 and 2012 first rounders, 2011 second and fourth rounders, and 2012 fourth rounder, a haul that wound up becoming a very big deal when the Falcons whiffed badly on their 2012 draft class and generally ran into depth and talent issues down the line.
For all that, though, Julio has been an unmitigated success in Atlanta, putting together the single greatest WR season in Falcons history last year and generally looking like the best offensive player on the field at all times for Atlanta. He'll likely go down as the greatest receiver in franchise history and one of the better receivers of the last decade if he can just stay healthy, but how you feel about this selection probably depends on how bitter you are about the picks surrendered.
2013: CB Desmond Trufant
The Falcons had to make a move up to get Trufant, but it didn't cost them as much as it did to get Julio. They gave up a third and sixth rounder in 2013 and got back a future seventh rounder from the Rams, and in exchange they landed one of the NFL's better cornerbacks. Not bad.
In what looked like a loaded class of cornerbacks, Dimitroff's trade up ended up being very savvy, because few of those players have lived up to their promise aside from Darius Slay and perhaps Xavier Rhodes. Trufant doesn't get a ton of picks, but he's borderline dominant in coverage and should be the #1 cornerback in Atlanta for many, many years. Trade cost aside, this was a brilliant pick.
2014: OT Jake Matthews
The Falcons had been hurting at left tackle for a while, trotting out the likes of Baker, Lamar Holmes, and other memorable names on Matt Ryan's blindside. Matthews was supposed to come in and be the franchise left tackle right away, but thanks to an ankle injury and a rookie learning curve, he was somewhat of a disappointment in 2014.
Thankfully, he bounced back in a big way in his second season, ranking among the league's better left tackles in 2015. He should be a fixture at the position for a long time, and he has the talent and athleticism to be an elite tackle for a decade. Again, a very nice pick.
2015: DE/LB Vic Beasley
It's too early to pass judgement on Beasley, but suffice to say he looked pretty good for a guy with a torn labrum, putting up four sacks and a few big, timely plays against the likes of Carolina. If he can take a big step forward in his second season--and I anticipate he will--he should be another first round success.
Dimitroff's first rounds have been, on balance, very successful. He's surrendered a lot of assets to move up in the first and some of his picks have been hampered by major injury issues, so it's hardly all roses, but Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews, Vic Beasley, and Desmond Trufant are all major pieces for the current Falcons team and very good first rounders, and no matter what TD's ultimate legacy in Atlanta is, we'll be able to look back fondly on his first rounds. Assuming he doesn't screw this one too badly, of course.
In a couple of days, we'll turn to the second round, which is more of a mixed bag.