The 1990s brought more success than ever before in Falcons history, aided in part by some very productive draft classes. The 2000s had a difficult act to follow in that regard, and there was no Super Bowl on the way for Atlanta in that decade.
Nonetheless, the 2000s brought excitement to the Falcons in the form of a pair of terrific quarterbacks, an improving roster thanks to some excellent draft classes, and multiple playoff runs. That second item is the focus of this ongoing series and today’s article, as you’d imagine, and hopefully those of you my age or a little younger will find this to be a fun trip down memory lane.
Best draft class: 2001
If you want to understand how the Falcons were so consistently good in the 2000s, start with this class.
The first pick hardly needs an introduction. Michael Vick was a player who electrified the Falcons fanbase, but he also briefly provided the Falcons with a nightmare-to-defend presence under center, one who mixed a cannon arm with the best playmaking skills of any NFL quarterback of his era. It was no coincidence that the team made the playoffs twice and were generally a hell of a lot of fun to watch in Vick’s five year run as the team’s starter, and while his career was truncated by the arrest and suspension for his participation in a dogfighting ring, he did great things in that span.
The Falcons killed the rest of this draft class, too, though. Alge Crumpler is one of the better tight ends in team history and was Vick’s most reliable target, rolling up 316 receptions for 4,212 yards and 35 touchdowns over seven seasons. Roberto Garza was only a Falcon for four seasons, but was a good as a spot starter in three of them and excellent as a full-time starter in another before becoming a rock at guard and center for the Bears. Matt Stewart was a reliable starter at linebacker for three seasons in Atlanta, as well.
For all that, the best pick the team made might’ve been Kynan Forney, who started 89 games at right guard for the Falcons over several seasons and was pretty terrific in most of them. Atlanta somehow scooped him up in the seventh round, meaning the Falcons grabbed a starting right guard, great tight end, short-term starting linebacker and guard, and franchise quarterback in a single class. That’s pretty damn good.
There are multiple honorable mentions here. The 2008 class brought in Matt Ryan, the best quarterback in franchise history, as well as capable starters in left tackle Sam Baker, linebacker Curtis Lofton, wide receiver Harry Douglas, and safety Thomas DeCoud, with Kroy Biermann mixing in as a versatile and valuable part-time starter. The 2005 class got the Falcons Roddy White, a franchise great, as well as the terrific Jonathan Babineaux and a capable starting linebacker in Michael Boley, as well as a useful rotational pass rusher in Chauncey Davis. The Falcons simply did a nice job drafting throughout much of the 2000s.
Best draft pick: Matt Ryan, 2008
When you turn the third pick in the draft into the best quarterback in franchise history, that’s a great pick.
I was not a fan of the selection when it was made—infamously, happily—but Ryan wound up starting in Atlanta from 2008-2021, setting every major franchise passing record, winning the team’s sole MVP award, piloting the Falcons to six playoff berths and only their second Super Bowl in team history, and so forth. He’s a future Ring of Honor inductee and a potential Hall of Famer someday, and given that he was Thomas Dimitroff’s first pick as the team’s general manager, an ideal way to usher in a new era in Falcons football.
Honorable mentions go to Roddy White, who overcame a slow start to his career to become one of the greatest wide receivers in team history, as well as Jonathan Babineaux, who quietly turned in a stellar career as a second round pick in that very same 2005 class.
Worst draft class: 2006
If you’ve read all these articles, you know by now that not having a first round pick is a kiss of death for the Atlanta Falcons. The 2006 draft class was no exception.
With their second round pick, the Falcons drafted cornerback Jimmy Williams, who had a brief and subpar career in Atlanta. Their third round pick was their sole good one, as Jerious Norwood put together a quality, brief career as a fun and productive running back for the Falcons. Quinn Ojinnaka would go on to have a better career in professional wrestling than the NFL and Adam Jennings was briefly a much-maligned return option, while D.J. Shockley spent some time as a reserve quarterback but never got into an NFL regular season game before launching into a more lucrative career as a quality Falcons analyst locally.
For those counting at home, that’s one player who got any real run with the Falcons out of five selections. We don’t need to bother with an honorable mention, because this was easily the worst class of the 2000s for Atlanta.
Worst draft picks: Jamaal Anderson, 2007
A slam dunk for this award. Anderson was a physical presence on the Arkansas defensive line, and the Falcons brought him in hoping he could be a reliable run defender and bolster a pass rush that needed the help, with Jonathan Babineaux and John Abraham having to carry far too much of the weight.
Instead, Anderson proved to be a startlingly inept pass rusher, managing just 4.5 sacks over four seasons in Atlanta and a merely solid run defender, which is not at all the kind of impact you’re looking for when you make someone the 8th overall pick in a particular draft class. Adding insult to injury, Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch, and Darrelle Revis all went a few selections later, meaning the Falcons missed out on Hall of Fame caliber talent for a player who started three seasons and delivered very little. If you’re looking for a reason that Arthur Blank promoted Rich McKay out of the general manager role and away from personnel, Anderson is very much on top of that list.
Jimmy Williams would be the honorable mention here in 2006, but he was at least a second round pick.
If the 1990s transformed the face of the franchise and enabled two decades of success, the draft classes of the 2000s cemented that success and enabled Atlanta to rise to even bigger and better heights in the 2010s. It was once again a critical decade for the Falcons.
The 2001 class built on the foundation laid in the 1990s to create something special for a brief shining moment, with Vick and company leading Atlanta to playoff success in 2002 and all the way to the NFC Conference Championship in 2004, as well as revitalizing a fanbase that needed the jolt after the listless 1999 and 2000 seasons. The 2005 and 2008 classes brought in starters aplenty for a Falcons team that finally had winning seasons in back-to-back years, landing Ryan, Roddy, Babineaux, Justin Blalock, Stephen Nicholas, DeCoud, Lofton, and others to set the team up for success in the late 2000s and early 2010s. In between, the Falcons mostly grabbed useful starters and role players, with Rich McKay’s shaky 2006 and 2007 drafts standing out as the only real miscues of the decade.
If the 1998 Super Bowl proved the Falcons could reach that stratosphere of success, the 2000s proved that they could do special things with great quarterbacks and consistent drafting, as the team went from three playoff berths in the 1990s to four in the 2000s with Vick and Ryan under center. The 2000s classes and a pair of pivotal additions in the 2010s would propel Atlanta to their greatest heights yet, and we’ll get to that in the next edition.