The Falcons made the 4th selection in the 2021 NFL Draft a year ago and came away with tight end Kyle Pitts, a player who put together a record-breaking rookie season and seems to just be scratching the surface of his potential. This year, they have the 8th overall pick, and have the opportunity to draft another huge difference maker.
This isn’t an unprecedented situation, as the Falcons have had back-to-back (or even back-to-back-to-back) top 10 picks multiple times in franchise history. They’ve rarely been able to turn that windfall into back-to-back great selections, but hopefully Terry Fontenot and company will reverse that trend in 2022.
Let’s re-visit the team’s history in this scenario and see how they’ve made out in the past.
2014-2015: OT Jake Matthews and DE Vic Beasley
Matthews is the only player on this list still with the Falcons, and the 6th overall selection in 2014 has been a rock solid left tackle for Atlanta for eight seasons now, making one Pro Bowl and missing just one regular season game over that span. Only Bob Whitfield and Mike Kenn have played more games for Atlanta at the position, and the new contract for Matthews means he’ll likely spend at least a decade with the team. That’s pretty good value for the selection.
Beasley unfortunately wasn’t. That 2016 season was incredibly memorable and Beasley has a prominent place on the franchise’s all-time sack leaderboard, but inconsistency plagued him over five seasons in Atlanta and he never quite lived up to his considerable potential with the Falcons after being greeted enthusiastically when the team picked him 8th overall.
2007-2008: DE Jamaal Anderson and QB Matt Ryan
One of the worst top ten selections in team history and one of the absolute best in back-to-back seasons.
Anderson simply didn’t work out. A big, physical defensive end for Arkansas, Anderson was expected to add power and pass rushing acumen to the Falcons defensive lineman but offered little aside from solid run defense over four years in Atlanta. That plus 4.5 sacks makes for a disappointing return for an 8th overall pick.
Ryan, meanwhile, was selected 3rd overall and immediately helped stabilize a franchise coming off an awful 2007. By the time he was traded to the Colts last month, Ryan had put together the finest and longest career by any Falcons quarterback, shattering every franchise record and winning the franchise’s sole MVP award back in 2016. He has an extremely strong argument for the best draft selection in team history, and the whiplash of going from Anderson with a top ten selection to Ryan is tough to top.
1991-1993: CB Bruce Pickens, OT Bob Whitfield and OT Lincoln Kennedy
The rare back-to-back top ten investment in the offensive line in 1992 and 1993, and the even rarer investment where both players panned out. The problem was that they didn’t both work out for the Falcons, and the 1991 pick was arguably the worst one in franchise history.
That pick would be Bruce Pickens. The Nebraska cornerback played 27 games in Atlanta, starting eight and picking off two passes, before the team cut ties. Many people bring up linebacker Aundray Bruce as the most obvious “worst pick in franchise history” candidate, but the former #1 pick at least played 62 games, started 33, and put together 16 sacks and 8 forced fumbles over that span. On a different team Pickens might’ve parlayed his undeniable talent into a better career, but it definitely didn’t work out in Atlanta.
Whitfield you know and love. Only Mike Kenn has played more games for the franchise at left tackle than Whitfield, who made the Pro Bowl during that magical 1998 season and was a 16 game starter at the position from 1993-2002. If you can get a decade of above average-to-great play out of a tackle, that’s worth a top ten pick every time, and Whitfield delivered.
Kennedy was a different story. A 16 game starter at left guard in his rookie season, Kennedy lost his job to free agent Dave Richards the next season and couldn’t get it back in Atlanta. The team wound up trading him in 1996 to the Raiders for a fifth round pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. All Kennedy did from there was anchor right tackle for eight consecutive seasons for the Raiders, including three straight Pro Bowl berths, making this trade look pretty bad in hindsight.
1988-1989: DE/LB Aundray Bruce and CB Deion Sanders
One of the team’s biggest draft busts and one of their brightest lights in back-to-back seasons, something we talked about above with Matt Ryan and Jamaal Anderson.
Bruce’s career is remembered as being worse than it is, but if you’re the top selection in a draft class, anything short of greatness is going to draw justified scrutiny. As I wrote above, Bruce had a knack for forcing fumbles and picked up 12 sacks in his first two seasons when he was a starter, but he fall out of favor after four seasons in Atlanta and wound up joining the Raiders as a long-time reserve after that. The Falcons would make 12 picks in 1988 and only three would pan out, and all of those guys were selected in the fifth round or later. The Bruce miss was a big one.
The next year, the Falcons were lousy again and once again had a dreadful draft class where only one player really worked out. Fortunately for them, that player was Deion Sanders, who became one of the most electrifying athletes and most fondly remembered players in Falcons history. In five seasons with Atlanta, Sanders snagged 24 interceptions, was named to the All-Pro team twice, and was one of the best returners in the NFL, scoring five times combined on kicks and punts. He would leave after the 1993 season to chase a championship and the money his play earned, but those five seasons were at least pretty tremendous.
1984-1986: DE Rick Bryan, OG Bill Fralic and DT Tony Casillas
With the 9th pick in 1984, the Falcons snagged Bryan. While never a massive difference maker in Atlanta—he finished with 29 career sacks and missed significant chunks of three seasons due to injury—Bryan was a mainstay on the Falcons defensive line for nine seasons and was a rock solid player throughout much of that run.
Fralic is a franchise legend. A two-time All-Pro, Fralic started 115 games over eight seasons in Atlanta and was one of the nastiest guards in the league over that span. He had the kind of career we’re all hoping Chris Lindstrom equals or exceeds at right guard.
Casillas was the second consecutive No. 2 pick for Atlanta, and didn’t quite pan out the way Fralic did. He owns the franchise record for tackles by a defensive lineman and was a disruptive force for stretches with the Falcons, managing an absolutely bonkers 152 tackles in 1989 that is still an NFL single-season record for a lineman. In 1990 he fell out of favor with the new coaching staff and was swapped to the Cowboys for a package of picks including a second rounder, and he’d go on to win two Super Bowls with Dallas.
1975-1977: QB Steve Bartkowski, RB Bubba Bean, OT Warren Bryant
Bart was the first overall pick in ‘75 and was the greatest quarterback in franchise history until Michael Vick and Matt Ryan arrived on the scene. He labored on some truly bad teams and piloted a couple of really good ones, but suffice to say Bartkowski was a good-to-great quarterback who never quite had the team around him to make a Super Bowl run. The Falcons hardly would’ve made another selection, given their acute need at quarterback, Bartkowski’s hype, the fact that another one wasn’t selected until the third round and the fact that only Steve Grogan and Pat Haden turned in even halfway decent careers at QB from that class.
Bean didn’t quite work out. The Texas A&M star was selected 9th overall—the fourth back in the top ten, believe it or not—and operated as the team’s de facto starter for most of his three year run in Atlanta. He averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and chipped in 59 catches out of the backfield from 1976-1978, and the following year he was supplanted by the great William Andrews and never played in a regular season game again.
Bryant was the 6th selection in 1977 and wound up being more or less the full-time starter at right tackle for the next eight seasons, turning in a very solid career that didn’t quite
1968-1969: DE Claude Humphrey and T George Kunz
The best two-year stretch of top-ten picks in franchise history came very early on.
Humphrey is a Hall of Famer for a reason, and by unofficial sack tallies, is the all-time franchise leader in that metric. He was a terror on that Falcons defensive line for a decade, making the All-Pro team twice and posting 99.5 sacks over that span as one of the NFC’s best defensive linemen. He’d finish his career in Philadelphia, where he continued to be a problem for opposing offenses.
Kunz wasn’t quite as good as that, but he was one of the best right tackles in football and a four-time Pro Bowler in six seasons in Atlanta. He became a perennial All-Pro once he left for the Baltimore Colts, likely owing to the higher profile that job afforded, but suffice to say the Falcons absolutely nailed both of these picks even if Kunz didn’t stick around long enough with the team.