The theme of the week at SB Nation is quite simply “what if?” Honestly, most of those are too hashed out and painful to bring up again for this particular franchise, so I dug a little deeper than “what if the team hadn’t drafted Matt Ryan?” or “what if they hadn’t blown...yeah.”
Entering the 1988 season, the Falcons had the first overall selection in the draft. They had a ton of needs and wound up only connecting on three players in their entire draft class, with Charles Dimry and Houston Hoover turning into starters and Michael Haynes turning into a terrific receiving option. They absolutely blew it with the selection of Aundray Bruce first overall, as Bruce was one of the bigger (but not the biggest!) bust in team history, and the rest of their defensive additions were pretty disappointing as well. Given that they needed an elite defender and their offense would begin rounding into form shortly after this, if they had simply hit on that first overall selection, they could’ve been a much better team both in the short term and over the long haul.
So here’s today’s what if: What if this team had passed on Bruce and instead picked up the guy who went second overall in this class, Neil Smith?
It’s unfair to suggest that Smith would’ve been the exact same guy in Atlanta, but his talent was such that he would’ve undoubtedly been a very good player for the Falcons. He finished his career with 104.5 sacks for the Chiefs, Broncos, and Chargers, and at his peak had a four season run where he piled up 11 or more sacks every single season. The addition of Smith would’ve given this team a borderline elite defensive end to build around, and given that he wasn’t super impressive his first season, they likely would still have been in position to pick up Deion Sanders the next year.
What would this ultimately have meant for Atlanta? They were still not the best drafters in this era, so chances are their fortunes wouldn’t have changed dramatically just from picking Smith. Chances are they would have been better, especially during that crucial 1991 postseason where they could not stop Washington, and Smith might very well be the team’s all-time sack leader and a franchise legend today. Having even one guy up front like that could’ve shifted the fortunes of the franchise in profound ways that are difficult to conceive of now, and it’s an alternate history I’d love to see play out.
Let’s get your take on this hypothetical. What if the Falcons had passed on Aundray Bruce for Neil Smith? If you want to get really wild and assume the Falcons can see what we can see today, what if they had picked up a Hall of Famer like Randall McDaniel, Thurman Thomas, or Tim Brown?