In the run-up to the 2018 NFL Draft, there’s plenty to talk about, but I also like to re-immerse myself in the drafts of yesteryear. Today, I wanted to take a look back and see if I could determine (not without controversy) who the best picks in each round were. For my sanity’s sake, we’re going to lump all the historic eighth-and-later round picks into a single category.
The thing you’ll notice here, whether you ultimately quibble with these rankings or not, is how many of the team’s better draft picks in any given round have been members of the team’s secondary. It’s one of the few things the Falcons have done reasonably well since the very beginning. You’ll also notice that we’ve got two centers on here, which is nice.
Let’s get to the full list.
Round 1: QB Matt Ryan, #3, 2008
Honorable Mention: Tommy Nobis, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Mike Kenn, Claude Humphrey, Deion Sanders, Steve Bartkowski, Mike Vick
In the end, it’s tough to argue against Ryan. He’s the most successful quarterback in franchise history, with the team’s lone MVP award, two conference championship berths, and a Super Bowl under his belt, and he owns every franchise milestone you can possibly think of. Ryan will be divisive until the day he hoists a Lombardi Trophy for Atlanta—and possibly even after that—but he’s been the linchpin for the best Falcons teams we’ve seen outside of the 1998 Super Bowl squad, and he’s deserving of this honor.
Julio is in the midst of a potential Hall of Fame career, Roddy was the franchise’s best receiver ever until Julio came along, Kenn is a true Hall of Famer unjustly being denied a spot in Canton for his work at tackle, and Humphrey and Sanders are both Hall of Famers who just didn’t spend their entire careers in Atlanta. Nobis was the original Mr. Falcon and a legend in his own right who had the misfortune to play for a lousy Atlanta team in an era where that team was an afterthought in the national press.
Then there’s the other QBs. Bart was a great quarterback playing in a very different era with a mixed bag roster, which meant he probably never got his due. Vick was one of the great athletes of all-time at the quarterback position, arguably the most successful Falcons QB until Ryan came along, and a living legend.
I think Kenn or Nobis probably has the best claim to this throne if you’re not willing to give it to Ryan, while Julio’s a few years away from staking a very legitimate claim.
Round 2: S Scott Case, #32, 1988
Honorable Mention: Chuck Smith, R.C. Thielemann, Justin Blalock, Deion Jones, Robert Alford, Jonathan Babineaux
This one was surprisingly tough, loaded with players who made history for Atlanta. He didn’t have the longest career in Atlanta, but he was a bone-rattling hitter and playmaker at cornerback and safety, and one of the better members of the team’s secondary ever.
But there’s a very legitimate case for Smith here. He retired as the team’s all-time record-holder for sacks until John Abraham blew by him, and he was both an underrated defensive end and a key piece on that 1998 Super Bowl squad.
Thielemann was a very good, very durable guard who locked down a starting spot for Atlanta for a long time. Babineaux, meanwhile, was never a flashy player, but he was a terrific defensive tackle who made the Falcons better in the middle of many years. I had a hard time not choosing him, honestly.
Alford is a very good cornerback who has put in quality work for Atlanta for the past several seasons, while Jones looks like he may have this title locked up in another five or so seasons if he keeps playing at the insane clip he has through two seasons.
Round 3: RB William Andrews, #79, 1986
Honorable Mention: Buddy Curry, Andy Maurer, Thomas DeCoud, Corey Peters
Things thin out pretty nicely in the third round. Andrews was a Hall of Fame-caliber talent who dominated as a runner until injuries essentially ended his career, and it’s tough to think about how good he might have been had he stayed healthy. He’s far and away the best player on this list.
If you want competition, though, we can talk about very solid linebacker Buddy Curry. Maurer and DeCoud were both solid starters with a couple of standout years apiece, but the fact that I included them both tells you how well the Falcons have done in the third round in their history. Peters was a surprisingly solid starter for Atlanta who also saw injuries wreck his career.
Round 4: CB Ken Reaves, #49, 1966
Honorable Mention: Devonta Freeman, Jim Mitchell
The pickings are even slimmer here. Reaves was one of the team’s original draft picks and one of the better players in the early years of the franchise, putting up 29 interceptions and providing strong coverage at cornerback over eight seasons in Atlanta. We won’t hold the fact that he played for the Saints after that against him.
Freeman needs no introduction, as he’s on pace to finish his career as one of the better running backs ever to set foot in Atlanta, and certainly one of the most complete. Mitchell was arguably the best tight end the Falcons ever drafted, though I have a soft spot for Alge Crumpler.
Round 5: CB Kenny Johnson, #137, 1989
Honorable Mention: Kroy Biermann, Ricardo Allen, Michael Boley, Brett Miller
Johnson was a useful starting cornerback who had 16 interceptions in 6.5 seasons in Atlanta and dabbled at returner. The only other players who belong on this list—which is pretty putrid—are Allen, who has been very good as the team’s starting safety of late, Biermann and his high-motor stint as a starter for some reason, Boley and his couple of very strong early seasons in Atlanta, and sometimes starting right tackle Miller. With another year or two it’ll obviously be Allen and frankly Grady Jarrett might already be the best player on this entire list, but for a little while yet, we’ll go with Johnson’s combination of solid play and relative longevity.
Round 6: DT Travis Hall, #181, 1995
Honorable Mention: Ray Brown, Fulton Kuykendall
This one’s a tough call, but Hall was arguably the best defensive tackle ever to play for the Atlanta Falcons, leading the franchise list at the position with 41.5 sacks and proving to be a tough, durable presence on the interior of the defensive line for many years. He clocked a decade in Atlanta and doesn’t come up often enough when we talk about the team’s greats.
He’s closely followed by Ray Brown, a playmaking safety who started all but six games over his seven seasons in Atlanta. Fulton Kuykendall, a colorful linebacker with the nickname “Kaptain Krazy” who was known for launching himself like a missile at basically anything that moved. If there was any justice, one of these guys would have been drafted in the fifth round instead, since all three of these guys had better careers than anyone I listed out for the prior round.
Round 7: C Todd McClure, #237, 1999
Honorable Mention: Jamal Anderson, Michael Haynes, Alfred Jackson
McClure is a franchise great, full stop. He started 16 games at center for the Falcons for nine straight seasons, clocked 195 starts in total, and was a very good player up until the very end of his career. If not for Jeff Van Note, he’d be the best center in team history, and he’s one of the five or so best and most durable offensive linemen the Falcons have ever had. And they got him in the seventh round!
Jamal Anderson is the easy #2 here. He was a key player on the team’s 1998 Super Bowl squad, when he put together arguably the greatest season by a running back in team history, and was a tough, fun runner until injury and a heavy workload unfortunately derailed his career. Haynes had a handful of very productive seasons for the Falcons as a pass catcher, as did Jackson.
Round 8 or later: C Jeff Van Note, #262, 1969
Honorable Mention: Greg Brezina, Tom Pridemore, Jeff Merrow
Van Note is second only to Mike Kenn in terms of durability and skill, and the two of them formed quite the duo on the Falcons’ offensive line for the eight seasons they spent together (despite Kenn being drafted nine years later, might we add). He’s another player who deserves more consideration from Canton than he’s ever likely to get.
Brezina was arguably the best non-Jessie Tuggle/Tommy Nobis linebacker in franchise history and one of the bright lights on those early Falcons teams that didn’t have a lot of bright lights to boast. Pridemore is yet another talented safety who did fine work with Scott Case, while Merrow was a fine run-stopping end who spent his entire career in Atlanta.
I know you’ve probably got strong takes with this list, so let’s hear them. What did we get right, and what did we get wrong?