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A brief Falcons draft history: The 1990s

Atlanta built a contender at last with some stellar classes.

Jamal Anderson #32

The Falcons made three playoff trips from 1966-1989, earning their reputation as one of the NFL’s consistent basement dwellers. The 1990s finally brought more success for our favorite football team and put Atlanta on the map somewhat, as they equaled those three playoff trips in a decade and made their first ever Super Bowl appearance.

You can credit much of that fine work to their drafts, both the best of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the terrific work the front office did from 1990 on. Atlanta’s draft classes brought in role players and stars from nearly every round, and they really only had a small handful of genuine draft busts along the way. That enabled them to have some early decade success, but more importantly, it fueled the 1998 team’s rise and contributed to the Falcons’ early 2000s playoff runs as well.

Let’s get into the good, the bad, and the thankfully limited ugly from the 1990s Falcons draft history.

Best draft class: 1999

The final class of the 1990s happened ahead of a very disappointing 1999 season for the Falcons, but it yielded a stellar class.

At the top was Patrick Kerney, who is third in Falcons history with 58 sacks and formed a fearsome duo with Brady Smith. Their second pick was Reggie Kelly, who they traded to get in what turned out to be a disastrous misallocation of resources, but Kelly was a very good blocking tight end despite that. Fourth round pick Johndale Carty was a solid reserve defensive back and special teamer for four seasons, and sixth round linebacker Jeff Kelly actually started seven games over three seasons. Had the team simply gotten one of the best pass rushers in team history and a few solid reserves, it would have been a solid class.

But they also snagged Todd McClure. The man known as Mud Duck would go on to be the starting center for the Falcons for over a decade, and the Falcons picked him up in the seventh round.

Honorable mention goes to 1992, where the team picked up Big Bob Whitfield and the great Chuck Smith. Had they nabbed anyone else that year, it would probably be the obvious pick for best class, but as it is it is behind only by a razor thin margin. You could also argue for 1991, given that the Falcons got some terrific players after their first pick, but one of them was Brett Favre and he cannot count given that he didn’t do his best work for Atlanta.

Best draft pick: Todd McClure, 1999

It’s hard to argue with the value here. McClure would start seven games his rookie season, which is already pretty impressive for a seventh round pick, but then would go on to start every game he appeared in over the next 12 seasons. He was a rock solid blocker and a reliable presence for Michael Vick, Chris Redman, and Matt Ryan until the Falcons essentially forced him into retirement following the 2012 season. The only reason he’s not a slam dunk as the greatest center in team history is because Jeff Van Note exists, but he was a great player and one the Falcons were fortunate to get so late in the draft.

Honorable mentions go to Chuck Smith, who was an absolute steal of a second round pick and one of the best pass rushers in team history, the great Travis Hall and his sixth round selection, and of course Jamal Anderson. A seventh round pick in his own right, Anderson put together one of the great seasons in team history in 1998, fueling the Super Bowl run. He’s one of the franchise’s what-ifs because his career was unfortunately derailed by injury, but even in his short prime Anderson did phenomenal things, especially for a seventh rounder.

Worst draft class: 1994

The Falcons really didn’t have a single bad draft class in the 1990s, a stunning turn of events given their mixed success in the previous three decades. There’s an easy answer for worst draft class, though.

Armed with no first round pick, a trouble spot for Atlanta throughout their history, the Falcons nabbed a quality receiver in Bert Emanuel in the second round and stud running back Jamal Anderson in the seventh round. Both players had terrific moments for Atlanta, Anderson in particular, but the Falcons had five other selections and got a combined 22 games out of them. Getting Anderson in the seventh and Emanuel means this wasn’t a bad draft by any stretch of the imagination, but given how successful the team was in adding talent in every other year of the 1990s, this one still “wins” the honor.

Worst draft picks: Bruce Pickens, 1991

Aundray Bruce has the reputation, Jamaal Anderson wins owing to recency bias, and there are probably a dozen lousy picks over the years who should be in the running. For my money, Pickens is easily the worst draft bust in team history.

An athletic but relatively raw cornerback, Pickens was a projection pick for an Atlanta team hoping to add to a secondary featuring Deion Sanders, and the Falcons picked him ahead of more well-rounded and proven options like Todd Lyght. Perhaps Pickens would’ve turned into something in different circumstances, but as it was he got embroiled in a legal battle with his own representation, threatened to sue the Falcons, and didn’t wind up signing his contract until October of his rookie season. Once he got on the field he only had brief flashes of ability, snagging two interceptions in 1992 in four starts and playing just 32 games over parts of three seasons in Atlanta.

When you use the third overall pick on a player, you want to be sure he’ll be an elite option. Aundray Bruce was a deeply disappointing first overall pick, but he gave the Falcons two solid seasons as a starter and two more as a useful reserve, while Pickens was selected two slots later and gave the Falcons a total of four starts and plenty of headaches. I hope he had a great post-playing life and career, but in a decade where the Falcons did a lot right in the draft, Pickens stands out as an all-time miss.

The honorable mention here is Steve Broussard, a player I was convinced as a kid would be a great running back but turned out to be a lightly used, mildly effective option. Given that he was a first round pick, that’s not stellar.

Impact: Transformative

The Falcons nailed it throughout the decade, and even managed to sparkle when it came to undrafted players, adding the great Jessie Tuggle. They hit early on stud players like Bob Whitfield, Patrick Kerney, Keith Brooking, and Chuck Smith, added useful options like Tim Dwight and Henri Crockett in the middle rounds, and nailed quite a few of their late picks, snagging Todd McClure, Jamal Anderson, and Travis Hall in the sixth round or later. All that effective team-building paired with some savvy acquisitions of receivers like Andre Rison (trade) and Terance Mathis (free agency) fueled the most successful decade in team history up to that point, with the Falcons achieving early decade playoff success and ultimately making their fabled Super Bowl run in 1998.

For the first time, the Falcons gained some measure of national prominence thanks to their flashiest players and improving roster, and you can credit a decade of quality drafting for that. These classes would prove to be very impactful in the 2000s, another great decade of drafting that we’ll cover off on next.