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Atlanta Falcons: The 20 greatest drafted players in franchise history

From Matt Ryan and Michael Vick to Gerald Riggs and Devonta Freeman, this listing has the Falcons' 53-year history covered like a blanket.

ATLANTA — 11Alive Sports offers a look at the 20 greatest players who were drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, a survey which dates back to 1966.

It's worth noting: We were willing to include current or former Falcons who were part of a draft-day trade, where technically they were selected by a different club. 

However, this scenario didn't really factor into our rankings.

(Perfect example: For the landmark deal involving quarterbacks Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in 2004 ... the Chargers technically drafted Manning ... and the Giants turned in the card for Rivers -- even though neither passer ever had a post-draft press conference on behalf of their original clubs.)

One last thing: Jessie Tuggle may be the franchise's all-time leader in tackles ... but he was an undrafted free agent for the Falcons in 1987.


YEAR: 2008
PICK: Round 1, 3rd overall
STATS: 46,720 yards passing, 307 TDs (295 passing), 65.3 percent, 102-72 record as a starter
HONORS: 2016 NFL MVP, one-time All-Pro, four Pro Bowls, 2008 Rookie of the Year

ANALYSIS: Do we really need to justify this selection? 

Ryan already owns the team records with completions, pass attempts, yards passing and passing touchdowns; and at his present pace, the 2016 NFL MVP could be a candidate for 70,000 yards passing and the Hall of Fame in about 10-15 years.

Looking back at 2008 ... a large number of Falcons fans initially threw their support behind LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey for the No. 3 spot. 

However, the brain trust of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and owner Arthur Blank had a different plan for this watershed selection, drafting Ryan and then handing him the keys to the franchise for the next 15-20 years.


YEAR: 2011
PICK: Round 1, 6th overall
STATS: 698 catches, 10,731 yards, 51 TDs
HONORS: Two-time All-Pro, six Pro Bowls, one NFL receptions title, two receiving yardage titles

ANALYSIS: Another no-brainer pick at the top.

Jones has yet to surpass Roddy White for the all-time team marks with targets, catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns ... but it's only a matter of time before Julio owns every significant Falcons record.

In the last five years alone (2014-18), Jones holds absurd averages of 105 catches, 1,599 yards and 6.2 touchdowns; and for those mocking the last stat (above), just remember Jones found the end zone nine times over his final eight games in 2018.

At this point, Jones likely has an 80/20 shot of reaching the Hall of Fame on the first or second ballot.


YEAR: 1978
PICK: Round 1, 13th overall
HONORS: Two-time All-Pro, five Pro Bowls

ANALYSIS: Kenn was the very definition of reliability during his 17-year career at left tackle, starting all 251 of his games played and protecting the blind sides of five different quarterbacking eras (Steve Bartkowski, David Archer, Bobby Hebert, Jeff George, Chris Miller).

The only tangible knock: The Falcons never collected a playoff victory during Kenn's tenure.


YEAR: 2005
PICK: Round 1, 27th overall
STATS: 808 catches, 10,863 yards, 90 TDs
HONORS: One-time All-Pro, four Pro Bowls, one NFL receptions title

ANALYSIS: As mentioned above, White currently owns the franchise records for catches, targets, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. 

That's more than enough production with one team to justify his top-4 standing, namely over a transcendent Hall of Famer ... who only spent five years in Atlanta.


YEAR: 1989
PICK: Round 1, 5th overall
STATS: 53 interceptions, 22 total touchdowns
HONORS: Hall of Famer, six-time All-Pro, eight Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl titles

ANALYSIS: If Sanders had played more than five years with the Falcons, he'd be ranked no lower than second within the countdown. 

But alas, Atlanta didn't have the 'franchise tag' as a simple tool for keeping Sanders in the mid-1990s.

As such, Sanders devotees will have to settle for fifth place, even though Prime Time belongs on the NFL's super-short list of shut-down cornerbacks. 

In fact, if you looked up that term in the sports dictionary ... one might find it bearing a picture of Sanders.


YEAR: 1982
PICK: Round 1, 9th overall
STATS: 8,188 rushing yards (9,704 total), 69 touchdowns
HONORS: One-time Super Bowl champ, three Pro Bowls

LEGACY: Riggs might be the only player in NFL history to be snagged outside the top 5 ... and still be book-ended by Hall of Famers – O-guard Mike Munchak at 8th overall and tailback Marcus Allen at No. 10.

ANALYSIS: On the plus side, Riggs' four-year spurt of averaging 1,572 total yards and 8.5 touchdowns (1984-87) had few peers in the 1980s, aside from Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson.

On the down side, the Falcons essentially drove Riggs (club leader in rushing yards) to an early grave (figuratively speaking), having him average 364 carries from 1984-86.

One last note: Riggers' 10th and final NFL season couldn't have been scripted any better. 

The 1991 Redskins cruised to the NFC East title and the Super Bowl championship ... while Riggs closed his career with 11 touchdowns.


YEAR: 1991
PICK: Round 2, 33rd overall
STATS: 71,838 yards passing, 522 TDs (508 passing), 62 percent, 186-112 record as a starter
HONORS: Hall of Famer, 3-time NFL MVP, 3-time All-Pro, 11 Pro Bowls, one Super Bowl title

ANALYSIS: Favre ranks in the top five for all-time passing yards and passing touchdowns. 

With that knowledge, he should sit atop this simple countdown, right?


Favre might be the most famous Packer in the franchise's illustrious history (sorry, Bart Starr and Aaron Rodgers); but with the Falcons, the Mississippi native was a mere backup to Chris Miller, apparently spending more time partying in Buckhead than studying the team's playbook during that 1991 campaign.

(By the way, Favre's first professional pass was returned for a pick-six.)

Does that mean Favre wouldn't have eventually become a superstar in Atlanta? No, amazing talent typically wins out with these hypotheticals.

However, Favre's relocation from Atlanta to Green Bay was certainly a gift from the football gods; and yet, the Falcons got robbed with that swap ... even though they corralled a first-round pick from the Packers.


YEAR: 2001
PICK: Round 1, 1st overall
STATS: 22,464 yards passing, 169 TDs (133 passing), 56.2 percent, 61-51-1 record as a starter
HONORS: Four-time Pro Bowler, 2010 AP Comeback Player of the Year

NOTABLE: The Falcons and Chargers engineered a draft-day swap, with Atlanta moving up four spots to the No. 1 pick. San Diego fared well in the deal, landing future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson.

ANALYSIS: The Georgia Dome's loudest single evening (sports-wise) might have involved Vick's comeback game in 2003, just three months after breaking his leg during the preseason.

Vick accounted for 320 total yards (141 rushing) and one touchdown, while shredding the Panthers' formidable defense for numerous long gains.

That magical night basically summed up the Vick era with the Falcons: When things were right, he was an unstoppable force; but when things deviated from the initial plan, the quarterback couldn't be trusted to take Atlanta to the next level.

Plus, this relationship had one of the most awkward endings in team/player history, with Vick incurring a yearlong suspension for his role in the dogfighting scandal (circa 2007) ... and never suiting up in black-and-red again.


YEAR: 1969
PICK: Round 11, 262nd overall
HONORS: Six-time Pro Bowler

ANALYSIS: Van Note was the first transcendent Falcons player, in terms of maintaining prominence for parts of three different decades (60s/70s/80s). 

He was also in top form for this long period, starting all but three of his games played from 1970-85.

Which brings us to this: As a kid growing up in Michigan, I'll never forget the first time Van Note's shaggy white beard and hair got national attention. 

The Lions and Falcons were playing in September 1984 ... and Van Note looked more like "Uncle Jesse" from the Dukes of Hazzard than a productive NFL starter.

Looks aside, Van Note was an absolute rock at his position.


YEAR: 1998
PICK: Round 1, 12th overall
STATS: 9 forced fumbles, 13 INTs, 22 sacks, 60 pass deflections, 1,097 tackles
HONORS: Five-time Pro Bowler

ANALYSIS: Brooking was the perfect Falcons defender for the late 1990s/early 2000s, capitalizing on a time when opposing offenses weren't obsessed with a disproportionate pass/run ratio (in favor of the pass, at least).

Charting 10 of his 11 seasons in Atlanta (1998-2008), Pro Football Reference attached a near-Pro Bowl or higher grade for Brooking, who racked up nine consecutive seasons of 100-plus tackles from 2001-09.


YEAR: 1979
PICK: Round 3, 79th overall
STATS: 5,986 rushing yards (8,633 total), 41 touchdowns
HONORS: Four Pro Bowls

ANALYSIS: Earl Campbell was the NFL's greatest fullback of the late 1970s/early 1980s. No argument there.

However, you can't tell the story of the early 80s Falcons without giving major props to Andrews, who stealthily averaged 1,677 total yards (1,154 rushing) and eight touchdowns from 1979-83. 

If those numbers had occurred in today's fantasy-obsessed NFL (guilty as charged), Andrews would have been one of the league's highest-paid rushers at his position.

Unfortunately, this story has a sad ending, with Andrews sustaining a major injury during the 1984 preseason and effectively being robbed of his physical gifts. The Auburn product and Georgia native would be sidetracked from pro football for two years.


YEAR: 1975
PICK: Round 1, 1st overall
STATS: 24,124 yards passing, 167 TDs (156 passing), 55.9 percent, 59-68 record as a starter
HONORS: Two Pro Bowls
LEGACY: Bartkowski is believed to be the first high draft pick of the modern era to hire an agent for contract negotiations. His choice: A then-unknown lawyer named Leigh Steinberg.

ANALYSIS: Few quarterbacks of the 1970s benefited more from the so-called 'Mel Blount Rule' than Bartkowski. In 1978, the NFL outlawed the act of defensive players contacting or impeding receivers downfield, allowing defensive backs and linebackers to abandon all forms of contact at five yards beyond scrimmage.

This proved to be a boon for Bartkowski's career. For the first three years of the post-Blount Rule era, the Cal grad engineered 13 game-winning drives in the second half; and for 1980-83, Bartkowski might have had the NFL's best deep ball, preceding the Hall of Fame eras of Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and John Elway.

Plus, for 1980 and '81, Bartkowski posted back-to-back campaigns of 30-plus passing touchdowns ... a feat that would have been on par with running a 4-minute mile 40 years ago. (Or something like that.)


YEAR: 1968
PICK: Round 1, 3rd overall
HONORS: Hall of Famer, two-time All-Pro, six Pro Bowls, 1968 Defensive Rookie of the Year

ANALYSIS: It's hard to quantify Humphrey's impact in Atlanta, since NFL statisticians didn't officially track 'sacks' until 1982. 

However, there are three tangible explanations for Humphrey's spot in the top 10: He started every game played with the Falcons from 1968-78, he played a major role on the 1977 'Blitz Grits' defense (NFL all-time low of 129 point surrendered) ... and he's only one of three players in this countdown with a bust inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


YEAR: 1985
PICK: Round 1, 2nd overall
HONORS: Two-time All-Pro, four Pro Bowls

LEGACY: Fralic's agent, Ralph Cindrich, negotiated the so-called 'Rabbi' contract with the Falcons, calling for the club to cut an annual check of $250,000 to Fralic for the rest of his life. Doing the quick math, that would have called for 34 years ... and $8.5 million.

ANALYSIS: The late, great Fralic might have commanded more respect in NFL circles, if he had been drafted outside the top 10 in 1985. It's tough for interior linemen to meet the sky-high expectations of being a top selection.

Fralic started 131 of his 132 outings ... and essentially flirted with Pro Bowl consideration every season.


YEAR: 1994
PICK: Round 7, 201st overall
STATS: 5,336 rushing yards (6,981 total), 41 touchdowns
HONORS: One-time All-Pro, one Pro Bowl

ANALYSIS: With the notable exceptions of Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and maybe Charlie Garner, Anderson serves as the No. 3 tailback from the Class of 1994 – despite lasting until Round 11 ... and representing the 23rd running back off the board.

For the five-year stretch of 1996-2000, Anderson owned sublime averages of 1,296 total yards and 7.6 touchdowns; and keep in mind, the Utah product logged only two games in 1999, after blowing out his knee in a Monday Night Football clash against Dallas.

Anderson's coup de grace season took place a year earlier, when he carried the Dirty Birds offense with 2,165 total yards (1,846 rushing) and 16 TDs.


YEAR: 1999
PICK: Round 1, 30th overall
STATS: 82.5 sacks, 19 forced fumbles, 25 pass deflections
HONORS: One-time All-Pro, two Pro Bowls

ANALYSIS: For an eight-year stretch (2000-07), Kerney (four seasons of double-digit sacks) served as one of the NFL's most consistent pass rushers, routinely filling up the stat sheet with sacks, pass deflections and forced fumbles.

But ay the rub: Kerney's most dominant campaign (14.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, 26 QB hits) occurred with the Seahawks in 2007 ... just one year after bolting the Falcons, via free agency.


YEAR: 2014
PICK: Round 4, 103rd overall
STATS: 3,316 rushing yards (4,921 total), 37 touchdowns
HONORS: Two Pro Bowls

ANALYSIS: Freeman has enjoyed a strong start to his career, especially the 2015-17 seasons, notching three-year averages of 1,452 total yards and 12 touchdowns

Of course, if Freeman could avoid the injury bug (his bugaboo for the last two years), he'd probably have a higher spot in this countdown.


YEAR: 1993
PICK: Round 1, 9th overall
HONORS: One-time All-Pro, three Pro Bowls

ANALYSIS: The Falcons surely regret making that post-draft trade with the Raiders in 1996, shipping Kennedy to Los Angeles for a measly fifth-round pick. 

Kennedy might have been a backup with the Falcons; but with the Raiders, he quickly grew into one of the NFL's best right tackles of that era.

To wit, for the four-year stretch of 1999-2002, Kennedy was arguably the league's best right tackle, bolstering a Raiders offense featuring Rich Gannon, Charlie Garner, Tyrone Wheatley, Tim Brown and Jerry Rice.


YEAR: 1992
PICK: Round 1, 8th overall
HONORS: One Pro Bowl

ANALYSIS: For what it's worth, Pro Football Reference's value chart for the 1992 draft had Whitfield ranked at No. 6 overall for his career – trailing only receiver Jimmy Smith, cornerback Troy Vincent, linebacker Levon Kirkland, defensive tackle Chester McGlockton and safety Darren Woodson.

And of that group, only Vincent was drafted ahead of Whitfield. 

So, kudos to the Falcons for finding a bedrock tackle for 12 seasons, with the Stanford product starting every game played from 1993-2003.


YEAR: 1966
PICK: Round 1, 1st overall
HONORS: One-time All-Pro, five Pro Bowls
LEGACY: The first drafted player in Atlanta Falcons history.

ANALYSIS: Nobis didn't have the most dominant of pro careers, but his consistency (above-average defender for all 11 seasons) and First Falcon legacy warrant a spot in the countdown.

On the flip side, just one player from the NFL's 1966 draft class ended up as a Hall of Famer (the Rams' Tom Mack) ... and he became the second overall pick after Nobis. 

In that sense, Atlanta's expansion front office couldn't miss with such a legendary selection.


2005 – CB DeAngelo Hall, Virginia Tech

2005 – DL Jonathan Babineaux, Iowa

2004 – QB Matt Schaub, Virginia

2014 – OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M

2000 – C Todd McClure, LSU

1980 – LB Buddy Curry, North Carolina