What is the best jersey number in Atlanta sports history?
That simple question led me on a journey through time to find the answer. Icons can come packaged in every feasible way. Whether it be in a crisp clean single digit like No. 7 (Michael Vick), a classic like No. 21 (Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins) or a relatively unassuming numeral like 31 (Greg Maddux), each of these numbers means something in Atlanta sports lore.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be unveiling my findings five jersey numbers at a time. I looked at each of the major sports franchises in the city’s history, from the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Dream, United, Thrashers and Flames, all in order to catalog the definitive list of jersey numbers and whose worn them.
Before we get to the list, a few rules: A player had to play multiple seasons in Atlanta to be considered. I did not include any player who played for a franchise while it was located in another city; they had to have played in Atlanta.
To determine value and talent, I used a value-related stat for each sport such as Wins Above Replacement (baseball) or Point Share (hockey). Sometimes, I will make a subjective call. You may disagree, but that’s the fun of all of this, right? So, feel free to debate in the comments and let’s have a fun walk down memory lane. Let’s go!
Jersey No. 71
Best player: DE John Zook (1969-75)
Honorable mentions: DE Kroy Biermann (2008-15), Thrashers D Jiri Slegr (2000-02)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 71: 23
Summary: The path to Atlanta wasn’t traditional for John Zook, who passed away just over a year ago, but the Falcons must certainly have been glad he arrived. Originally drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth round of the 1969 draft, Zook was then traded to Philadelphia and eventually to Atlanta before ever playing a game. Zook immediately became an effective counterpart to Claude Humphrey and gave the Falcons a fearsome pass rush. Zook was responsible for the very first safety in Falcons history and recorded 61 sacks during his seven years with the team. He made his first and only Pro Bowl in 1973, but Zook was a notable player during his era and a really good early Falcons defender.
Is there a more polarizing player from the last decade than Kroy Biermann? Some people appreciated the effort he played with on the field and enjoyed the small-time celebrity he flirted with off of it. Others felt Biermann was emblematic of Falcons defenses that usually left something to be desired. A rotational player for most of his eight-year career, Biermann recorded 23.5 sacks and 331 tackles for Atlanta.
Jersey No. 72
Best player: Falcons OT Sam Baker (2008-13)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 72: 15
Summary: Surprisingly few players have worn No. 72, but I guess I can’t really blame them – It’s not really a super appealing number. Sam Baker is the best of the small number that did, which gives us a chance to talk about one of the more interesting recent players for Atlanta.
We all know Baker’s story, right? The Falcons traded back into the first round of the 2008 draft to grab a young left tackle to pair with the future franchise quarterback they selected earlier that round. To be fair to both Baker and Atlanta, there was a run on tackles in the first round, which led to Baker going in the first round when he was probably better suited to be a second-rounder. Still, he was a pretty solid player when on the field most of the time – the Falcons still majorly upgraded with Jake Matthews – but he had a big issue staying on the field. Only twice did Baker play a full season, and he missed at least half a season three times in his seven years. Not quite the beautiful pairing between quarterback and tackle the Falcons were hoping for, but we’ll always have 2012.
Jersey No. 73
Best player: Falcons OT Ryan Schraeder (2013-18)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 73: 23
Summary: I’m glad to see more people opt for No. 73 because it’s a much more aesthetically pleasing number, if you ask me. The selections for this number, however, weren’t great.
Ryan Schraeder was a reliable starter over five seasons and an important part of Atlanta’s excellent Super Bowl run in 2016, but that was easily his best year. Given what we know about Kyle Shanahan’s ability to get the most out of offensive linemen, it’s always hard to divorce the scheme from the player when evaluating. Still, Schraeder was a mainstay on the offensive line for two playoff teams and started 73 games total in six years for Atlanta, joining Matthews in helping Atlanta out of some ugly years at the tackle position. Not bad for an undrafted free agent.
Jersey No. 74
Best player: Falcons OT Todd Weiner (2002-08)
Honorable mentions: Falcons DT Mike Tillerman (1973-1976)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 74: 17
Summary: Although Todd Weiner played right tackle for the majority of his seven seasons in Atlanta, he was still Michael Vick’s (a lefty) blindside protector. I mention that to give credit to the type of pass protector Weiner was. He of course played a big role in the Falcons’ league-leading run games during the Vick era, but it was a difficult task keeping a scrambling quarterback protected for as long as Weiner often did.
One of Vick’s favorite escape routes was out the back door, and that meant Weiner had to prevent a lot of up-field penetration. Once the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan (a righty), Weiner shifted over to left tackle for his final NFL season. I mention that to give credit to the type of pass protector Weiner was.
Jersey No. 75
Best player: Falcons OT George Kunz (1969-1974)
Honorable mentions: Falcons DT Jeff Merrow (1975-83), Falcons NT Tony Casillas (1986-90), Falcons DT Rod Coleman (2004-07)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 75: 18
Summary: The second-overall pick in the 1969 draft (How big of an offseason was 1969 for the Falcons, by the way? Landing Kunz and Zook in one fell swoop), George Kunz made an immediate impact for Atlanta. He started every game as a rookie and was named to the Pro Bowl. In fact, the 1970 season, when Kunz missed five games, is the only time he did not make the Pro Bowl during his six years in Atlanta. Splitting his time between Atlanta and Baltimore, Kunz made eight Pro Bowls in his first nine NFL seasons and was named first-team All-Pro during that stretch. He’d likely be in the Hall of Fame by now if he’d played longer in the league. Kunz was a dominant player during his time and one of the best to ever suit up for the Falcons.
The list of players behind Kunz is pretty strong. Jeff Merrow played in Atlanta for nearly a decade and finished with 37.5 sacks in a run-heavy era. Tony Casillas, another second-overall pick, spent five years with Atlanta and started three full seasons while topping 110 tackles in each of those seasons. And finally, I feel like Wes Durham shouting Rod Coleman’s name after a big sack is just burned into my childhood memory. He was one of my favorite players to watch, and for good reason. How many defensive tackles wracked up back-to-back double-digit-sack seasons?
Next up: Nos. 76-80
Who is the best player to wear No. 71-75?
This poll is closed