The Falcons came into the NFL in 1966 as an expansion franchise with high hopes and very cool uniforms, armed with a raft of draft picks that included a pair of first rounders. Early success would have put Atlanta on the map in the league as a team to be reckoned with, and their very first pick Tommy Nobis was a widely lauded slam dunk.
Yet looking back on the 1966-1969 draft classes, what we see instead is a harsh lesson in what happens when miss the majority of your picks, especially when you have many rounds to work with. Atlanta’s first coaching staff and front office simply wasn’t up to the job, and that ensured that the Falcons would begin their life as one of the NFL’s worst and most frustrating franchises.
We’ll take each decade as its own retrospective, looking back at the best and worst draft picks, draft classes, and overall impact on the franchise. Today, let’s cover those brief, shaky first four seasons of the NFL Draft for our Atlanta Falcons.
Best draft class: 1969
The Falcons drafted Hall of Famer Claude Humphrey in 1968 and should-be Hall of Famer Tommy Nobis in 1966, so what makes 1969 stand out? It was the class where Atlanta landed their best collection of players.
George Kunz was the first selection, and the talented tackle went on to play six seasons with the Falcons, making four Pro Bowls along the way. Third rounder Mal Snider put in three solid seasons as a starting tackle and guard and somewhat hilariously returned a kick for a touchdown along the way. Fourth round tight end Jim Mitchell was one of the better tight ends in team history, setting a rookie touchdown grab record that lasted until Calvin Ridley broke it. Seventh rounder Dick Enderle started part of three seasons along the offensive line, and fellow seventh rounder Ted Cottrell was a useful reserve linebacker who went on to become a smart, innovative defensive coach in the NFL. Hell, even 15th round safety Jim Weatherford was a one-year starter for the fledgling Falcons.
That’s all solid-to-good for a team that had some brutal draft classes when they were just starting out, but what truly sets this one apart is their 11th round pick at center. That would be Jeff Van Note, who played for the Falcons from 1969 to 1986, appearing in the second-most games in Falcons franchise history, earning recognition as the best center in team history (only Todd McClure has a legitimate case otherwise), and appearing in six Pro Bowls as a fixture on Atlanta’s offensive line. Van Note more than anyone else on this list would be pivotal to the team’s first real taste of success in the 70s and 80s.
Best draft pick: Claude Humphrey, 1968
Van Note would be the other choice here, with Tommy Nobis also earning an honorable mentioned. Humphrey was the most singular talent taken in the 1960s by the Falcons, a true terror paired with longtime bookend John Zook and the unofficial Falcons franchise record holder for sacks. He would finish his career in Philadelphia where he was still great, but I’d argue that not even the great Nobis had the kind of impact Humphrey did for Atlanta during their shared run.
I expect this one to kick off a healthy debate, given how impactful Nobis and Van Note were, and I don’t think there’s a wrong answer here.
Worst draft class: 1967
It would be difficult to find a more disastrous class in some team’s histories, and this one was arguably the worst the Falcons ever put together. The fact that it came so soon after their inception helps explain why this team was so bad in the early going.
The Falcons made 16 picks in 1967, their first in the second round, and came away with one player who never suited up for them but did appear in 27 games for two other teams (linebacker Leo Carroll, chosen in the second), a running back who appeared in one game for the Saints (Jimmy Jordan, chosen in the third), and one wide receiver who played in three games for the Broncos (wide receiver Bobby Moten, chosen in the ninth round). Their other 13 picks played a combined zero games in the NFL, which means their entire draft class never wound up playing for the Falcons. Had they simply not showed up to draft anyone, the net effect would have been the same.
An expansion team that whiffs on an entire 16 player draft class probably is going to have some problems with talent, and the Falcons certainly did despite landing some great players in the 1960s. 1967 was an abject disaster for Atlanta.
Worst draft pick: Randy Johnson
Carroll was a disastrous pick for the Falcons, given that he was their second rounder in 1967 and he never played for them, but it’s fair to argue that the whiff on Johnson was more meaningful.
In five seasons in Atlanta, Johnson was never better than below average, never started a full 14 game season, and completed just 48% of his passes for 34 touchdowns and 65 interceptions. I’m not letting the Falcons off the hook for the talent they surrounded him with—it was grim—but Johnson was chosen with the 16th pick in the first round and the Falcons wound up rolling through a series of has-beens, never-weres, and so-so options at quarterback until they finally landed Steve Bartkowski in 1975.
The Falcons drafted a Hall of Famer in Claude Humphrey, two borderline Hall of Famers in Jeff Van Note and Tommy Nobis, and truly great players like George Kunz, Ken Reaves, and Greg Brezina in their four draft classes from the 1960s. Unfortunately, you need more than a handful of great players to build a good football team, and that’s where the Falcons ran aground.
In those first four draft classes, a majority of the players the Falcons selected didn’t suit up for them at all, and many never appeared in an NFL game. Atlanta snagged a handful of starters and role players outside of the franchise greats I mentioned above, but it was a small handful, and their talent level and coaching in the 1960s was brutally bad overall. It would take them years of improved drafting in the 1970s to dig out of the deep hole they got into by simply not stocking their roster with NFL-caliber players via the draft, and while that was a wildly different era in the league’s history, those Falcons remain a prime example of what happens when you can’t draft effectively.
Stay tuned as we move into a more productive and more interesting 1970s retrospective, coming this weekend.