Good and bad: The Falcons have history near top of NFL draft

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7) works through traffic and scores a touchdown during the first half of a NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints in Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023.   (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7) works through traffic and scores a touchdown during the first half of a NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints in Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

FLOWERY BRANCH — For the fourth consecutive year and for the 28th time overall, the Falcons are set to pick in the top 10 of the NFL draft.

The Falcons hold the eighth overall pick – for the third consecutive year – in the draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday in Detroit. The Falcons had the fourth overall pick in the 2021 draft.

The Falcons are hoping there is an early run on quarterbacks. That would push an elite position player down to be available for them to select. Meanwhile, they are working the phones for a possible trade.

“It is unique when there could possibly that many quarterbacks going right at the top, it’s going to push some really good skill players,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said. “And so, depending on, there could be a lot of action at some different spots around our pick. So, right now, all of those calls are just exploratory. We have the conversation.”

The value could be determined later.

“It’s just a lot of preliminary calls,” Fontenot said. “Because, to your point, they won’t happen until it’s really on the clock. Whenever you see what players are there and you see it getting closer to your pick, you start getting calls. ‘If our player is there, then this is what we would do.’ Then you start having those real conversations of what it would take.”

The key is knowing the picks and what would the value be to move down or up.

“This is what it would take for us to move from this pick down three spots, four spots, 10 spots or whatever it is,” Fontenot said. “We would take this value and these are the players we would get. You are just weighing the value of this player and this pick compared to this player at eight.”

The move would be similar if the Falcons tried to move up in the draft.

“Or, again if you’re going up a tick, to get a player, you are just kind of weighing out those values,” Fontenot said. “To answer your question, until you’re really on the clock, that’s when it becomes real.”

USC’s Caleb Williams, LSU’s Jayden Daniels and North Carolina’s Drake Maye, all quarterbacks, are projected to go first, second and third in the draft. Some team could trade up in front of the Falcons and draft Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy.

“You just never know. … Just the fact that we are talking about four quarterbacks going before that point, it shows how strong that quarterback class is,” Fontenot said. “There are some really good skill position players that are going to be at certain points. Who could go one, two, three in other drafts. To your point, having such a strong quarterback class does help the entire draft.”

The Falcons are planning for when they go on the clock. They plan to answer their phone if it rings.

“Yeah, it’s all of the work that goes on at this point,” Fontenot said. “So, we’re having all of those calls at this point. So, we really know the teams that have some real interests.”

There could be a curveball.

“Sometimes, there are surprises on the clock,” Fontenot said. “But we’ll, from this time up until the draft, not just myself, but (assistant general manager) Kyle Smith and other people … we’re having those calls and having all of that communication.

“So, you can expect the teams and if you see a certain player getting to a certain point, then you know they are going to be more teams that call. So, we kind of sort through that throughout the process. If teams are calling you around your pick, it’s pretty serious.”

The past three top-10 picks had strong rookie seasons – Bijan Robinson in 2023, Drake London in 2022 and Kyle Pitts in 2021. Offensive tackle Jake Matthews has played in 162 games since he was selected No. 6 overall in 2014. Julio Jones was selected No. 6 overall in 2011 and spent 10 seasons with the franchise.

The franchise has had some top-10 draft misses in its history. The selection in 2015 (Vic Beasley, No. 8) had one great season in his five with the Falcons. And continuing with the No. 8 theme – eight years earlier, the Falcons selected defensive end Jamaal Anderson with the eighth overall pick.

While Fontenot may not elect to select a quarterback, the franchise’s three best quarterbacks were selected in the top 10.

-Steve Bartkowski was taken No. 1 in 1975 and was the first quarterback to lead the Falcons to the playoffs (1978).

-Michael Vick was selected No. 1 in 2001 and guided the Falcons to the NFC title game after the 2004 regular season.

-Matt Ryan was selected No. 3 in 2008, was named NFL MVP in 2016 and became the second quarterback to guide the team to the Super Bowl (Chris Chandler, 1998). He signed with the team and officially retired Monday.

The list of top-10 picks also includes Pro Football Hall of Famers in defensive end Claude Humphrey, who was picked third out of Tennessee State in 1968, and cornerback Deion Sanders, who was picked fifth out of Florida State in 1989.

But there also were some big misses in the top 10 for the Falcons.

-Aundray Bruce (No. 1 in 1988) was overhyped as the next Lawrence Taylor and never lived up to the billing. However, he was a serviceable pro for 11 seasons, playing in 151 games with 32 career sacks. (Taylor finished with 132.5 career sacks).

-Bruce Pickens (No. 3 in 1991). The master plan was for Pickens to line up across from Sanders in the defensive backfield, and they would lock down wide receivers in the old NFC West. He was cut in his third season with two career interceptions.

-Jamaal Anderson (No. 8 in 2007). The former Arkansas defensive end (not to be confused with former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson) was supposed to team with John Abraham to give the Falcons a pass-rushing duo. Anderson ended up getting too big and had to move inside to tackle. The Falcons passed on linebacker Patrick Willis (11th), running back Marshawn Lynch (12th) and cornerback Darrelle Revis (14th) to select Anderson.

Here’s look back at the top-10 picks and how they fared in the NFL:

Tommy Nobis, 'Mr. Falcon'

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1966: Tommy Nobis, Texas, MLB, first: Had a Pro Football Hall of Fame-worthy career that covered 133 games. In March 2018, named Nobis as the top Falcon not in the Hall of Fame. Nobis set an NFL record with his 294 tackles as a rookie. He was named the NFL defensive rookie of the year. Nobis played 11 seasons and went to five Pro Bowls. He was an all-decade selection in the 1960s, joining fellow middle ‘backers Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, both of whom were first-ballot Hall of Famers.

1968: Claude Humphrey, Tennessee State, DE, third: In 2014, Humphrey became the first long-time member from the early days of the Falcons to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio. He terrorized quarterbacks in the NFL and was a part of the Falcons’ “Grits Blitz” defense of 1977 that set an NFL record for fewest points allowed. Sacks were not made an official statistic until after Humphrey’s retirement, but a film review of his career determined that he finished as the Falcons’ all-time leader with 94.5 sacks.

1969: George Kunz, Notre Dame, OL, second: Drafted behind USC running back O.J. Simpson, Kunz became an instant staple of the offensive line, playing with the Falcons from 1969-74. He was a Pro Bowl selection his first season and finished his career with eight Pro Bowl selections over his 11-year career.

1971: Joe Profit, Louisiana-Monroe, RB, seventh: He made only seven starts over three seasons. He later went into politics.

1975: Steve Bartkowski, California, QB, first: Held all of the franchise’s passing records until Ryan came along. He is in the team’s Ring of Honor.

Quarterback Steve Bartkowski became the face of the franchise and would go on to set every passing record in Falcons history. (Mike Powell/Getty Images)

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1976: Bubba Bean, Texas A&M, RB, ninth: His promising career was cut short by a torn ACL in 1977.

1977: Warren Bryant, Kentucky, OT, sixth: He was a solid pro, with 94 career starts.

1980: Junior Miller, Nebraska, TE, seventh: He went to the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons in the league, but was out of the league after only five seasons. Miller previously held the franchise record for most receiving touchdowns by a rookie, with nine. Calvin Ridley broke it with 10 in 2018.

1982: Gerald Riggs, Arizona State, RB, ninth: He went on to have a stellar career and is a member of the Falcons’ Ring of Honor.

1984: Rick Bryan, Oklahoma, DE, ninth: He won the NFC’s defensive Rookie of the Year award and had a solid nine-year career.

1985: Bill Fralic, Pittsburgh, G, second: After a storied career at Pitt, the three-time All-American was drafted by the Falcons. He started immediately at right guard and went to four Pro Bowls and was twice named to the All-Pro team. After 1992, he played one season with the Lions. He played in 132 NFL games, 131 as a starter.

1986: Tony Casillas, Oklahoma, DT, second: The Falcons like the Sooners. Since 1966, the team has drafted more players from Oklahoma than any other school. Most notable was nose tackle Tony Casillas. Casillas spent five seasons in Atlanta, accumulating 478 tackles.

1988: Aundray Bruce, Auburn DE, first: The Falcons missed on three Hall of Famers who went after Bruce in the first round. Notre Dame wide receiver Tim Brown (sixth to the Raiders), Miami wide receiver Michael Irvin (11th to Dallas) and Arizona State guard Randall McDaniel (19th to Minnesota).

1989: Deion Sanders, Florida State, CB, fifth: Prime Time put on a show in the NFL for five teams on his way to Canton, Ohio.

1991: Bruce Pickens, Nebraska, CB, third: Played briefly for the Packers after his career never took off with the Falcons.

1992: Bob Whitfield, Stanford, OT, eighth: Went to one Pro Bowl and was a key member of the franchise’s first Super Bowl team in 1998 under coach Dan Reeves.

1993: Lincoln Kennedy, Washington, OT, ninth: After starting as a rookie, he lost his job the following season and was later traded to the Raiders. Falcons gave up on him too soon. He went on to start eight seasons for the Raiders and made the Pro Bowl three times and was named All-Pro once.

2001: Michael Vick, Virginia Tech, QB, first: He led the Falcons to a historic playoff win at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and had them in position to reach the Super Bowl before his career was derailed by a federal dogfighting investigation.

2004: DeAngelo Hall, Virginia Tech, CB, eighth: After four seasons and two Pro Bowl trips, he was traded to the Raiders. He went on to play 11 more seasons in the league.

The Falcons' first pick in the 2004 draft was Virginia Tech cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

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2007: Jamaal Anderson, Arkansas, DE, eighth: He finished with 7.5 career sacks.

2008: Matt Ryan, Boston College, QB, third: Became the second quarterback to take the franchise to the Super Bowl, during the 2016 season.

2011: Julio Jones, Alabama, WR, sixth: Holds all of the team’s receiving records, surpassing Roddy White.

2014: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M, OT, sixth: Started at left tackle as a rookie and has been to one Pro Bowl.

2015: Vic Beasley, Clemson, DE, eighth: Had one spectacular season in 2016 when he had 15.5 sacks and won the league’s Deacon Jones award.

2021: Kyle Pitts, Florida, TE, fourth: Played all 17 games, had more than 1,000 yards receiving and was named to the Pro Bowl.

2022: Drake London, USC, WR, eighth: He was the first wide receiver taken in the draft.

2023: Bijan Robinson, Texas, RB, eighth: He had amassed 1,463 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns last season.


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