The 2010s were the most successful decade in Falcons history in many ways, though it may not feel like it here in 2023. Atlanta set a team record for a decade with five playoff appearances, made the NFC Conference Championship game in 2012, and went all the way to the Super Bowl in 2016. The tremendous draft classes at the end of the 2000s fueled that, but so did some of the best players and classes of the 2010s.
Here’s a trip down memory lane on that front.
Best draft class: 2016
In the long run, none of these players became franchise cornerstones, but you can’t overstate how important this group was for the 2016 Super Bowl run and 2017 playoff run.
Keanu Neal was the playmaking, bone-jarring tackler the Falcons needed at safety early on in his career, before injuries began to rob him of time and his best play. Deion Jones was a game-changing linebacker with his athleticism and playmaking ability until injuries and ineffectiveness led to his steady decline and exit from Atlanta. Austin Hooper was a vital cog in the Falcons passing game as a volume option for Matt Ryan until his first contract was up and the two sides parted ways. De’Vondre Campbell was an occasionally tremendous and usually at least solid starting linebacker in his own right before he wasn’t re-signed and came to flourish in Green Bay. Sixth round selection Wes Schweitzer was weirdly maligned by the fanbase but turned into a solid enough starter at guard for a team that needed it before he too exited. The only true miss in a small draft class was seventh rounder Devin Fuller, who never really got to contribute in Atlanta.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Neal and Jones in particular, the Falcons weren’t as good as they were in 2016 and 2017, as both players were instrumental to their success those two years. Even if the long-term results were ultimately disappointing, as most of these players did not get a second contract in Atlanta, they fueled one of the great runs in team history.
Despite the uneven overall results, the 2014 draft deserves mention for bringing in Jake Matthews, Devonta Freeman, and Ricardo Allen, all of whom would be major contributors for the team over several years. I’d give props for 2018, too, as Calvin Ridley was briefly terrific for Atlanta, Isaiah Oliver turned into a quality player, and both Russell Gage and Foye Oluokun were unexpected quality starters for Atlanta after both being sixth round picks.
Best draft pick: Grady Jarrett, 2015
It’s not often you get a franchise legend in the fifth round, but the Falcons did just that when they finally stopped Jarrett’s free fall in the 2015 NFL Draft. The son of Falcons icon Jessie Tuggle, Jarrett has become not just one of the best defensive tackles in team history, but also one of its acknowledged leaders.
A part-time player in his rookie season, Jarrett really blossomed in year two, coming up with three sacks in the regular season and sacking Tom Brady three times in the Super Bowl that year. He’s still going strong heading into 2023, having just led the team in sacks, serving as a tremendous run defender, and working to keep rising on the all-time sacks leaderboard for the Falcons (where he’s currently 10th) and quarterback hits (where he’s second only to John Abraham). He’d be in this conversation if he was a first round pick; because the Falcons got him so late, he’s a slam dunk for best selection of the decade and one of the great draft selections the Falcons have ever made.
Honorable mentions go to Julio Jones and Jake Matthews, a pair of top ten picks who excelled in Atlanta, as well as Ricardo Allen for going from 2014 roster cut to long-term starting safety. Matthews is one of the better tackles in team history and an underrated player overall, while Julio is the best receiver in team history, a future Hall of Famer, and that rare player that was worth trading the farm for given his outsized impact on the team. If Jarrett didn’t exist, Jones is likely topping this list because he was so absurdly great.
Worst draft class: 2012
Easy selection. The Falcons were once again without a first round pick, and history tells us their drafts are pretty universally putrid when that’s the case. Unfortunately 2012 was not an exception, and it “helped” set up the lousy 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Second round pick Peter Konz was considered the best center in the draft, but after an up-and-down start to his career in Atlanta, he quickly fell out of favor. Lamar Holmes was a project tackle who only enjoyed a couple of short stretches of fine play in his short time in Atlanta, with pass protection woes that still have fans referencing him years later. Fifth round pick (and fullback!) Bradie Ewing got hurt, fellow fifth rounder Jonathan Massaquoi had flashes as a pass rusher but was largely parked, and sixth and seventh rounders Charles Mitchell and Travian Robertson played in a combined 23 games. This was a disastrously ineffective class.
Worst draft pick: Jalen Collins, 2015
It just didn’t work out for Collins in Atlanta, owing primarily to suspensions. A projected first round pick before the draft, Collins slipped to the second and was snapped up by the Falcons, who were hoping he could join Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in giving the team an effective trio of corners.
He spent most of his rookie season on special teams, cashing in 46% of the snaps there in 2015 while playing 29% of the defensive snaps in 16 games, including a pair of starts. It was a quiet start to his Falcons career, one not helped by a four game PED suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season. When Trufant hit injured reserve, though, Collins stepped in as a starter, turning in a mixed series of starts with misadventures in coverage highlighted by moments of brilliance, including a strip and recovery of a Packer in the NFC Conference Championship Game. Collins made a team-high 11 tackles in the Super Bowl, but was also Tom Brady’s favorite player to pick on, with 10 of 14 targets for 98 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the game.
That was a difficult situation for a second-year player to be thrust into, to say the least, but he was still very young and clearly possessing talent. What Collins might have been for the Falcons with more time is unclear, because he was hit with a 10 game suspension heading into the 2017 season and then waived by the team when he completed it. Collins then picked up another four game suspension at the end of that season before picking up another 10 game suspension heading into the 2018 season. The Colts signed him to their practice squad after that suspension and he made the active roster for a game before spending time in the XFL and CFL.
The LSU corner had a couple of memorable games with the Falcons, but when you make someone the 42nd pick in the NFL Draft, you’re certainly hoping to get more than 24 games and eight mixed bag starts out of him, making him the least lucrative pick of the decade for Atlanta. Collins now hosts a popular Raw Room podcast with fellow former Falcon Daren Bates, where he’s talked before about his suspensions and rule changes in recent years that he believes would’ve meant he never would’ve been suspended in the first place.
The honorable mention to lead us off is definitely Konz. There were a lot of people excited about Konz when he was selected, but things did not work out. After a somewhat uneven rookie season that saw him drawing 10 starts in total, mostly at right guard and into the playoffs, Konz became a more or less full-time starter in 2013 at center and was replaced by Joe Hawley owing to ineffectiveness. A major injury in 2014 when he was got another chance to step back into a starting role effectively ended his career, as the Falcons cut him heading into 2015 and he never played in the NFL again. The team’s top pick in 2012 wound up playing in 39 games total with 28 starts over three seasons, with only a few of those showing us what a more healthy and effective Konz might have been.
Impact: Significant but mixed
Julio Jones is a likely Hall of Famer, Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews Falcons Ring of Honor nods down the line, the 2019 class gave Atlanta an elite guard in Chris Lindstrom, the team snagged two quality starting cornerbacks in 2013, and the 2016 class was instrumental for the team’s Super Bowl run. There was enough good here to keep Thomas Dimitroff employed through the entire decade, and to help the team make a franchise-best five playoff appearances in those ten years. When you consider that most picks don’t work out, the best of these classes suggests it was a good decade, and in many ways it was.
Looking back on the decade, though, it’s clear the drat misses impacted Atlanta in a major way. Injury isn’t something you can project, so it’s hard to blame Dimitroff and company for Sean Weatherspoon’s career winding down early after a brilliant start, for Mike Johnson not getting to shine as he otherwise might have on the offensive line, for Konz not working out, and so on. While the team hit on a number of early round picks and cashed in a few late rounders to snag Jarrett and some great role players, they also missed frequently in the second and third round, with Jalen Collins, Ra’Shede Hageman, Dezmen Southward, Lamar Holmes, Akeem Dent, and Duke Riley among the many players who didn’t have long and storied careers in Atlanta. The team also frequently set late round picks on fire outside of a few gems like Russell Gage, Kemal Ishmael, Wes Schweitzer, and Foye Oluokun, leading to Atlanta’s seemingly chronic depth problems in the back half of the 2010s.
You can’t understate the impact the best picks of the decade had on the Falcons and the success they made possible, but nor can you ignore how the accumulating early and late round misses hurt the overall strength of the roster as time went on. The 2010s are in many ways emblematic of the Falcons and their front office over that span: Sometimes tremendous, capable of stretches of astonishing success, often memorable, but falling shy of sustained greatness and possessing holes that are difficult to overlook in hindsight. That would show up in the 2020s, the decade we currently inhabit, which we’ll cover in a shorter version of this article next week.