As many times as the Falcons have had a top ten draft choice, they have actually never selected fourth overall. There’s still the possibility that Atlanta trades back from the fourth pick, but for now, I’ll examine how well they’ve picked in the top-five and grade each selection, then grade how well they have done overall. It’s worth noting that 6th overall seems to be the magic number for the Falcons — Deion Sanders, Julio Jones, and Jake Matthews were all selected at that spot. Two Hall of Fame locks and a future Falcons Ring of Honor member isn’t too shabby.
1966: LB Tommy Nobis, Texas (Round 1, Pick 1)
Mr. Falcon himself, Tommy Nobis is one of the greatest linebackers in college football history, and he was the first player ever drafted by the Falcons, who came into the league as an expansion team. Nobis was a two-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, and the 1966 NFL Rookie of the Year. Even though 2nd overall pick Tom Mack is an NFL Hall of Famer, Nobis is a Ring of Honor Member in Atlanta and was a slam dunk pick for a franchise that badly needed to start on the right foot.
1968: EDGE Claude Humphrey, Tennessee State (Round 1, Pick 3)
Even though Humphrey played in an age before sacks were an official statistic, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1999. The All-American from Tennessee State unofficially leads the franchise in career sacks with 94.5 and ranks third with 15.5 in a single season. Humphrey is tied for the franchise lead with six Pro Bowl selections — another fantastic pick for a franchise still in their infancy.
1969: OT George Kunz, Notre Dame (Round 1, Pick 2)
George Kunz isn’t the highest-profile name on this list, but he gave the Falcons five solid seasons and made a Pro Bowl every year from 1969 to 1977, excluding 1970. He was a multi-time All-Pro, but he loses a few points on this list for only playing in Atlanta from 1969-1974. Still, Kunz was rock solid — selected two picks before Mean Joe Greene and one pick after OJ Simpson.
1975: QB Steve Bartkowski, California (Round 1, Pick 1)
Franchise quarterbacks will always get you some bonus points, and although Bartkowski saw some lean years in Atlanta, he was a very productive player. The 1975 Rookie of the Year made two Pro Bowls with Atlanta and led the NFL in touchdowns in 1980. His #10 is retired by the team, and he’s also a member of the Falcons Ring of Honor. Injuries de-railed the end of his career, but he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in franchise history. I won’t knock points for this because he was the right pick, but one of my favorite players went 4th overall in 1975 — Sweetness himself, Walter Payton.
1985: OT Bill Fralic, Pittsburgh (Round 1, Pick 2)
The trend of the Falcons absolutely nailing their top-five selections continues. The year that Bartkowski was released and Dave Archer took over, Atlanta picked up the beast himself — Bill Fralic. Fralic made four straight Pro Bowls from 1986-1989 and was a three-time All-Pro. He was named to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team, and he gave the Falcons a stalwart at guard for seven years. Fralic was the second pick following NFL legend Bruce Smith and was two picks before Hall of Famer Chris Doleman. Jerry Rice went 16th overall in a stacked 1985 class.
1986: DT Tony Casillas, Oklahoma (Round 1, Pick 2)
The Falcons were picking second overall for the second consecutive year and once again missed out on a legend, as Bo Jackson was the first pick in 1986. However, Casillas didn’t have the production of Fralic in Atlanta. He played four seasons for the Falcons and was an All-Pro in 1989. He went on to win two championships with the Cowboys in 1996 & 1997. Casillas was a good player, but I can’t give him too many points for only playing four seasons.
1988: LB Aundray Bruce, Auburn (Round 1, Pick 1)
Bruce is the first bust on this list. He only started 42 games of his 11-year career and only played four seasons for the Falcons. With 15 of the 27 first-round picks in this draft making a Pro Bowl and three making the Hall of Fame — this pick was a whiff. Tim Brown went 6th overall, and Michael Irvin went 11th. Bruce actually didn’t have awful numbers in Atlanta; he had three interceptions, eight forced fumbles, and sixteen sacks over his first three seasons without missing a game. He converted to tight end in 1991, but he never became the defensive force he showed flashes of and didn’t live up to the status of a first overall pick. No matter how well you play, I can’t give a high grade to a first overall pick that played three defensive seasons.
1991: CB Bruce Pickens, Nebraska (Round 1, Pick 3)
The 1991 class wasn’t the greatest of all time, but Pickens was still sandwiched between four Pro Bowlers. In the one full season Pickens played with the Falcons, he had two interceptions over four starts. He made eight starts for the Falcons over three seasons before being traded to the Packers along with Eric Dickerson, who was in his last year of NFL action. Jerry Glanville shipped off both guys after a five-game losing streak to start the 1993 season.
2001: QB Michael Vick, Virginia Tech (Round 1, Pick 1)
Thankfully, the Falcons are done with draft busts and have only picked twice in the top-five since 2000. The Falcons were slated to pick fifth overall before pulling off a blockbuster trade to acquire the Virginia Tech superstar. Their pick was eventually used on one of my favorite players — LaDainian Tomlinson. There’s no debate that Michael Vick transformed this franchise. He was truly ahead of his time, and he dazzled fans nationwide with his playmaking ability. The four-time Pro Bowler still holds multiple NFL rushing records for a quarterback. After replacing Chris Chandler, Vick took Atlanta to the playoffs in 2002 and the Conference Championship in 2005. While I respect that Vick has been an upstanding citizen and has repaid his debt to society since his suspension, he left the Falcons high & dry. After six seasons in Atlanta, the Falcons were left wondering what could have been.
2008: QB Matt Ryan, Boston College (Round 1, Pick 3)
Not only is he a Hall of Famer, but Matt Ryan also gave this franchise hope when there was none. He will almost certainly finish top-five in NFL history in yards and touchdowns when he retires, and he has led Atlanta to the Super Bowl in an MVP season. Ryan has performed exceptionally in the playoffs and has been the face of this franchise for over a decade. That’s about all you can ask out of a top-five pick, and if the Falcons do spend the fourth pick on a quarterback, he will be learning from the greatest player ever to don the red and black.
Overall, the Falcons have done pretty well when selecting in the top-five — especially if you factor in their success with sixth overall picks. I have a lot of faith in Terry Fontenot & Arthur Smith, and frankly, I have no idea what they will do with this pick. This is an extremely talented draft class, and a player like Kyle Pitts or Penei Sewell would immediately provide this team with a superstar. Even if they select a quarterback to learn under Matt Ryan, I don’t think this team will be picking in the top-five for a while under Arthur Smith. Atlanta has had their missteps, but as a whole, the Falcons usually nail these high selections.
Overall Grade: A-