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A brief Falcons draft history: The 1980s

The Falcons mixed franchise greats and really solid picks with uneven on-field results.

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Atlanta Falcons v Washington Redskins Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Our draft retrospectives by decade move to the 1980s, one of the more interesting chapters in team history. The Falcons would build on their strong 1970s classes and turn into a pretty terrific team in the early 1980s, nearly pulling off two playoff wins in 1980 and making the postseason in the strike-shortened 1982, but then they would rattle off seven straight losing seasons to close things out.

Despite those uneven results, the Falcons started getting more out of their draft classes in the 1980s, especially near the top. Let’s take a look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly from four decades ago....wait, really? I’m old.

Best draft class: 1985

This one was a bit tricky, but Atlanta landed multiple quality starters in this class and got some value late. It was highlighted by the great Bill Fralic, the team’s first round pick and sort of the Chris Lindstrom of his era. Fralic would play eight seasons as the team’s full-time starter at right guard and was a terrific one, making four Pro Bowls and being named an All-Pro three times. He was followed by an underrated full-time starter along Atlanta’s offensive line in Mike Gann, who spent his entire nine season career with the Falcons, provided consistently strong run defense, and compiled 23.5 sacks. Finally, the team got future head coach Ken Whisenhunt at the end of the draft, and he turned into a solid blocking tight end and decent enough receiving option for a few seasons with the Falcons.

The 1984 draft earns an honorable mention. Rick Bryan was an underrated defensive lineman who delivered a lot of good years, while second round pick Scott Case turned into one of the finest defensive backs in team history, as well as the single season record holder for interceptions. The team ended up drafting a pair of other good players in linebacker Thomas Benson and defensive back Rod McSwain, but they played the bulk of their careers with other teams.

Best draft pick: Deion Sanders, 1989

Who else, really?

Sanders played just five seasons in Atlanta, but they were legendary seasons. In those years, he had an absurd 24 interceptions, three defensive touchdowns, seven forced fumbles, three All-Pro berths, and five special teams touchdowns as one of the most electric returners in football. A flashy player with supreme confidence, Sanders delivered a new attitude and excitement for Falcons football, and both his Hall of Fame career and his outsized impact in his time in Atlanta makes him an easy pick for this honor.

Honorable mentions go to 1984 second round pick Scott Case, one of the other great defensive backs in team history, and the very effective linebacker John Rade, an eighth round pick way back in 1983 who played a decade in Atlanta as a starter. Bobby Butler, who played in Atlanta forever and was a solid starter throughout, also should earn mention given that he was the 25th pick in 1981 and more than provided value.

Worst draft class: 1987

The Falcons didn’t have a single truly abysmal draft class in the 1980s, so we’re making progress here. That meant choosing the worst one was a little more difficult.

In the end, I went with 1987. Chris Miller was a good starting quarterback for a few years in Atlanta—he was the man under center when I became a fan, so I’ll always have a soft spot for him—but injuries and rollercoaster effectiveness prevented him from becoming more than just a short-term quality option for the Falcons. Out of the rest of the class, only part-time starting linebacker Michael Reid (a 7th rounder) and legendary special teamer and four-time Pro Bowler Elbert Shelley (an 11th rounder) were legitimate contributors for Atlanta. That makes it easily the weakest class of the 1980s.

The honorable mention class would be 1986. That year saw the Falcons land tackling machine Tony Casillas, who only spent a few seasons in Atlanta, and useful starters in linebacker Tim Green and wide receiver Floyd Dixon. Their other six selections, however, combined to play just 32 NFL games, making Green the only long-term, relatively high end pick in the class.

Worst draft picks: Aundray Bruce, 1989

His name is synonymous with “worst draft bust in Falcons history,” though a little unfairly. What’s forgotten a bit is that in his first couple of seasons in Atlanta, Bruce was a full-time starter who snagged a combined 12 sacks, three interceptions, and four forced fumbles, and he had four sacks in a part-time role in 1990 under new head coach Jerry Glanville. He fell out of favor starting that year, though, and spent just four seasons in Atlanta, compiling 16 sacks and spending the rest of his career as a rotational defensive lineman with the Raiders, playing seven seasons and rolling up another 16 sacks there.

As this in-depth article lays out, this was a tale of the often disastrous Marion Campbell and the less disastrous Ken Herock falling in love with a player with all the talent in the world, with questionable motivation and a changed coaching staff ultimately dooming Bruce. Jerry Glanville, who ultimately parked him in Atlanta, told The Athletic’s Bob McGinn in 2021 that he thinks Bruce would’ve been a star if he he had been drafted in 2020, making it clear that he was a player that landed in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

That early success might have continued had the Falcons not switched coaching staffs, but I don’t want to lose sight of this important fact: Bruce was not nearly good enough to be selected first overall, and that was a catastrophic pick for the Falcons as a result, especially because second round pick Marcus Cotton was also a terrible selection for the team in 1989. We beat up Vic Beasley all the time for his 37.5 sacks in five seasons, but he was a full-time starter in all of those seasons and did have that one brilliant if fluky campaign and was not the first overall pick, and Bruce spent just two years as a full-time starter. He’s not the worst pick in team history, but he’s in the conversation.

The honorable mention here is Junior Miller, a terrific player his first two years in the league who only wound up playing four seasons in Atlanta and managed just over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in that span. While he’s one of the more productive tight ends in team history, the fact that the Falcons drafted him 7th overall—only 11 players have been drafted 7th or higher at tight end—it’s difficult to argue that he was a great pick in hindsight.

Impact: Significant

The Falcons actually drafted pretty well throughout the 1980s, even though that hardly translated to more success beyond the heady days of the early 1980s, when they made the playoffs twice and won their first playoff game. They really only missed on one first round pick—Bruce—and had success grabbing long-time starters in the later rounds. Combined with some of the successes of the 1970s—Mike Kenn, William Andrews, Steve Bartkowski, and so forth—the team was certainly better-equipped than they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s when they were abysmally bad.

Still, it didn’t translate to a ton of success in that decade, with the Falcons closing out the decade with seven straight losing seasons. Some of those picks, like Rade, Deion Sanders, and Chris Miller would be key pieces on the 1991 playoff team I still remember so fondly, but the Falcons simply couldn’t put it all together for a long time, and those shaky 1987 and 1988 draft classes didn’t help matters much. This was the decade, though, that the Falcons started finding draft competence more consistently, and as we’ll see 1990 would deliver much more.