The Atlanta Falcons have selected in the top five of the NFL Draft 11 times since their inception. Those 11 picks have come at a variety of positions and have enjoyed varying levels of success, but the simple truth is that Atlanta has had many more excellent picks than busts when they’re picking that high.
Past picks do not indicate future ones, much less any kind of success, but I thought it might be fun to go back and see who Atlanta landed with their top picks over the years as we prepare for another potential top five selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. We’ll start with #1 picks and work out way down to #5.
#1, 1966: LB Tommy Nobis
The first overall pick in Atlanta’s very first season, Nobis is one of the greatest players in team history. He was revered by fellow players and coaches in his era, drawing favorable comparisons to Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, but his chances of Canton recognition were damaged by how putrid the teams he played on proved to be. Nobis is an unmitigated success as a #1 pick and one of the bigger slam dunk selections in team history.
#1, 1975: QB Steve Bartkowski
Atlanta’s second first overall pick was the greatest quarterback in team history for 30-plus years, and is second in team history in every meaningful category today. Bart had some great seasons in his heyday, including a memorable 1980 year where he threw a league-high 31 touchdown passes, and was a two-time Pro Bowler. Atlanta played their first four playoff games with him at the helm and got their first-ever playoff win, and while Bartkowski was sometimes victimized by a poor supporting cast and his numbers don’t look as shiny as they once did, he was a terrific player and a worthy top pick.
#1, 1988: LB Aundray Bruce
The lone draft bust among Atlanta’s four #1 overall picks. Bruce posted a combined 12 sacks over his first two seasons in Atlanta as a more-or-less full-time starter but swiftly fell out of favor, putting up 4 sacks in 3 starts in his third season and then zero as a two-game starter in his fourth year. Atlanta let him walk in the 1992 offseason and Bruce would go on to finish his career with 275 tackles, 32 sacks, 9 forced fumbles and 4 interceptions, a perfectly fine career if you aren’t the first overall pick in a draft class. I’ve often wondered if Bruce would’ve thrived more with a different coaching staff but he didn’t really pan out for Atlanta.
#1, 2001: QB Michael Vick
Depending on your viewpoint, Vick is probably somewhere between the second-best or third-best quarterback in team history, though in terms of pure talent he was probably the best ever to don a Falcons jersey. The electrifying Vick piloted the Falcons to the first-ever visiting team playoff win at Lambeau Field and two playoff victories overall, became one of the most successful and fun-to-watch running quarterbacks in NFL history, and is third in every major passing category in franchise history, plus first by a very wide margin in every running statistic for quarterbacks in team history.
His career in Atlanta ended in disappointing fashion, to put it mildly, as Vick was arrested and jailed on charges related to a dogfighting ring he was heavily involved in. Vick later said he could’ve put much more effort into his time in Atlanta, but that hardly kept him from having a memorable, largely fantastic six year run with the Falcons. His revolutionary talent and his best moments made him a worthy #1 pick, too.
#2, 1969: OT George Kunz
Kunz would later be overshadowed by the phenomenal Mike Kenn and Jake Matthews is busy cementing his own legacy as one of the team’s best tackles, but he finished his career in Atlanta as one of the greatest ever to do it at the position. Kunz only missed five games over his six seasons in Atlanta, helping to anchor a line that protected a series of forgettable quarterbacks before Bartkowski. He made the Pro Bowl in five of his six seasons with the Falcons and made it three more times in Baltimore, earning one All-Pro nod before injuries made him a shell of himself over his final three seasons. It’s only worthwhile taking a tackle that high if they’re going to be dominant for a decade-plus, and while Kunz didn’t quite get there for Atlanta, he was that good.
#2, 1985: OG Bill Fralic
Fralic has a legitimate case as the best guard in team history. He started 115 games in Atlanta over eight seasons, earning a Pro Bowl nod four times and earning All-Pro honors twice as a mauling presence on an underrated offensive line that helped keep the Falcons somewhat competitive with a revolving door of quarterback options post-Bartkowski.
Again, if you take a guard in the top five, you expect that player to be dominant for a decade. Like Kunz, Fralic didn’t get there in terms of longevity, but he was a legitimate great in terms of his actual play, making this another hit for Atlanta.
#2, 1986: DT Tony Casillas
Yes, Atlanta had the #2 pick in back-to-back years. No, they weren’t able to replicate their success with Fralic.
Like Bruce, Casillas actually put up a decent career in Atlanta, managing 8 sacks in 57 starts with Atlanta over 5 seasons and occasionally dominating as a run defender. When you take a defensive tackle with the #2 overall selection, though, you fully expect that player to be with you longer and be far more dominant than Casillas actually was. Also like Bruce, Casillas would go on to enjoy a decade-plus career in the NFL that was perfectly solid, but he never came close to living up to that draft billing, making him one of the most noteworthy misses on this list.
#3, 1968: DE Claude Humphrey
One of the most dominant defenders in team history, Humphrey played a decade for Atlanta, is the team’s unofficial sack leader (given that the league did not keep track of those during his career), and recently made the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his tremendous work for the Falcons and Eagles. One of the most fearsome and physical pass rushers of his era, Humphrey ate quarterbacks alive and was a great run defender as well. The Falcons nailed this pick and were lucky to have him as long as they did.
Having multiple Hall of Famer-caliber defenders overlap in Atlanta and largely wasting them with an awful offense is a very Falcons thing to do.
#3, 1991: CB Bruce Pickens
Bruce gets a lot of the heat when it comes to discussions of the worst Falcons draft picks ever, but remember that he turned in four okay seasons and 16 sacks for Atlanta. Pickens would play just 27 games with 8 starts for the Falcons over parts of three seasons, intercepting two passes, and is in my mind indisputably the most disappointing draft pick ever given his results and his draft slot. The very good Todd Lyght went two picks later, the excellent Stanley Richard went a few picks after that, and dominant receiver Herman Moore went one selection after that, making Atlanta’s decision to pick Pickens even more infuriating and baffling in hindsight.
The biggest miss on this list, bar none.
#3, 2008: QB Matt Ryan
Despite winning the franchise’s sole MVP award, piloting the team to one of just two franchise Super Bowls, and owning every franchise passing record outright, Ryan has never managed to quite win over every corner of the fanbase during his time in Atlanta. That hardly matters because he’s indisputably the best quarterback ever to play for the team and the most successful one, to boot, and whether his career in Atlanta wraps up after 2021 or well into the future, that will be obviously true. Ryan revitalized a franchise that had just suffered through the ignominy of Bobby Petrino’s flight to Arkansas and has, over the past decade-plus, been at the helm of six playoff-bound teams. This pick was one of the biggest slam dunks on the list, if not the biggest.
#5, 1989: CB Deion Sanders
One of two Hall of Famers on the list, Sanders is one of the greatest cornerbacks and returners in NFL history. Due to the notorious cheapness of the team’s ownership group, Sanders would only play five seasons with the Falcons, but he had 24 interceptions, 3 interceptions returned for touchdowns, and 7 forced fumbles during the best five year stretch from a corner in team history, and added five combined return touchdowns over that same span, making the Pro Bowl three times and making the All-Pro team twice. We all wish he could’ve played in Atlanta a hell of a lot longer, but his dominance over that relatively short stretch made him worth the pick and then some.
As you can see, the Falcons had one true massive bust (Bruce Pickens), two solid players who weren’t at all worthy of top five selections (Aundray Bruce, Tony Casillas), two tremendous offensive linemen who didn’t quite prove to be plug and play for a decade (Bill Fralic, George Kunz), three franchise-caliber quarterbacks (Steve Bartkowski, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan), one borderline Hall of Fame defender (Tommy Nobis) and two Hall of Fame defenders (Claude Humphrey, Deion Sanders). None of this says the Falcons are going to nail their next pick—we don’t even know who will be running this front office yet—but the franchise’s history at least suggests that a top five pick will yield a very good player for Atlanta.