The Falcons moved into the 1970s as one of the worst teams in the NFL, having gone a combined 12-43-1 over their first four years in the league. Everyone associated with the franchise hoped the 1970s would be better, and they were. Just not much better until late in the decade.
The draft was once again an opportunity for the Falcons to improve their football team, and just as they did in the 1960s, they mixed some terrific picks with a lot of useless picks. If you were going to break down how many picks the Falcons made in the 1970s and how many worked out, it would be something like 10-25% of their picks, depending on how loose your standards for success were. It’s just that the picks that did work out were so good they helped fuel Atlanta’s success at last, as the team finally sealed their first playoff berth in 1978 after getting frisky and managing a pair of winning seasons in 1971 and 1973 before falling back into a hole of mediocrity.
Let’s take a look back at the best and worst of the Falcons’ draft history from the 1970s.
Best draft class: 1975
There were a couple of pretty good classes in the 1970s, but ‘75 takes it home.
The top pick was Steve Bartkowski, who piloted the team to their first postseason success and was a really good player who will never quite get the credit he deserves, in part of because of injury and in part because he was dragging a bad team to victories throughout much of his run. Second round pick Ralph Ortega was a solid linebacker—though only a starter for one season—and running back Woody Thompson was a solid role player in the third round.
The gems were deeper into the draft. Fulton Kuykendall, nicknamed Kaptain Krazy, was a frenzied and very good linebacker who was a fixture on the Falcons defenses of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Defensive end Jeff Merrow put up 37.5 sacks—that puts him, sadly enough, among the team’s all-time leaders—and was a terrific, stalwart option for Atlanta’s defensive line throughout his long run with the Falcons. Atlanta also unearthed a couple of useful role players alongside them.
The Falcons—and hell, quite a few teams—simply didn’t hit on all that many draft picks in their deep classes in this era, so the fact that they still whiffed plenty doesn’t take away from the quality they found in 1975. Honorable mentions go to 1977, where they unearthed a pair of very good offensive linemen in R.C. Thielemann and Warren Bryant, and 1979, where they grabbed William Andrews, Lynn Cain, and the very underrated defensive lineman Don Smith.
Best draft pick: Mike Kenn, 1978
Steve Bartkowski was the best quarterback in team history not only for his run in Atlanta, but many years afterwards. William Andrews was a legendary running back who might have been ticketed for the Hall of Fame if he had gotten to finish out his career without injury. Tom Pridemore was a stellar defensive back, R.C. Thielemann a great offensive lineman, and so on. The Falcons landed some true difference makers throughout the 1970s.
Still, this is easy. Kenn is the greatest tackle in team history and has a legitimate case for best Falcon ever, and he should be a Hall of Famer. A stalwart at left tackle from 1978 to 1994, Kenn started every game he played, played more games than any other player in team history, and was a five-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler who was one of Atlanta’s essential men. He was a good player right up until the end of his distinguished career, and one of the best picks the Falcons ever made.
Worst draft class: 1974
Atlanta did not have a first round draft pick, and in their history, any time they do not have one they are doomed to have a mediocre draft class. The 1974 group was no exception.
We’ll get to top pick Gerald Tinker below, but suffice to say he didn’t do much in the pros. Third round pick Kim McQuilken was a disastrously bad quarterback, fourth round defensive back Mo Spencer never even suited up for the Falcons, and seven of 17 picks never played in an NFL game. Incredibly, the Falcons did not get a single quality long-term starter out of this entire class, with the only good player being tight end Henry Childs, who played in just six games for Atlanta and actually enjoyed his best years with the Saints.
This was all too common in Atlanta’s early years, but just like the 1967 class I mentioned in the last retrospective, this one would’ve been just as good had the Falcons simply thrown darts at a board and picked whoever they landed on.
The 1976 class deserves a mention here, but the Falcons at least got useful players in running back Bubba Bean and guard Dave Scott out of that class.
Worst draft pick: Gerald Tinker, 1974
You can see the thought process here. Tinker was an Olympic track athlete who won a gold medal in the 1972 Summer Olympics, and the Falcons needed speed. Tinker was fast fast, and despite the fact that he produced a pair of quiet seasons at Kent State, the Falcons made him a second round pick as a wide receiver. Over 20 games in Atlanta, he produced exactly 20 receptions for 218 yards and a touchdown, 72 of those yards coming on a single catch. He was a pretty good kick returner, but after two years in the league, he was gone. A special athlete, Tinker might’ve had more success in a different era (and certainly with a different, better team), but the Falcons sort of set that pick on fire.
Our honorable mention is an interesting story in his own right. Years ago I named Joe Profit as one of the worst picks in team history, and the man himself was kind enough to contact me and fill me in on the fact that he suffered a catastrophic injury that derailed his career, something I didn’t realize at the time. The 7th pick in the 1971 NFL Draft was hurt in the fourth week of his rookie season and never was able to fully return to the form that made him a top ten selection, washing out of the league after the 1973 season. His post-playing career, which featured a doctorate in philosophy, a run for Congress in Georgia, and heading a tech company, has been much more lucrative.
Oh, and one other honorable mention goes to third rounder Kim McQuilken, who legitimately has some of the most unbelievably terrible numbers you’ve ever seen from a quarterback. He threw four touchdowns and 29 interceptions in his NFL career.
Better than the 1960s!
The Falcons snagged several players who were foundational pieces, including Bartkowski, Andrews, Kenn, Tom Pridemore, Thielemann, Don Smith, and Jeff Merrow. By and large, though, their draft classes were riddled with busts and players who never even took the field for them, meaning those rosters were rarely deep and loaded with the kind of talent Atlanta needed to make deep playoff runs. They got by with the wattage of their brightest lights, a familiar story for our favorite football team.
Still, they did enough to get much better—having a quarterback helped—and start moving toward the success they would finally realize in the 1980s. We’ll get to that one later on this week.