After the Michael Vick scandal and the Bobby Petrino “era”, there really was only one way the Falcons could go when they lined up Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith to rebuild the franchise. Still, it came as something of a shock how quickly they were able to turn around one of the weakest rosters in the league into a team that would make the playoffs in three of the next four years while managing winning seasons each year.
But how did they do it? We’re going to go through the 2008-2010 draft classes and give them the Draft Grader treatment. For those new to the concept that means every pick gets a grade between +2.0 and -2.0 (in 0.5 increments) that depends upon:
• Where they were drafted
• Their performance
• Their contribution (how many snaps their team got out of them)
• Other factors such as unforeseen injuries and conditions that could not have been accounted for
Let’s take a look at how the Falcons have drafted.
+2.0: You’ve just found Tom Brady in the 6th round
Not quite in the sixth but …
+1.5: Getting much more than you bargained for!
Matt Ryan, QB (3rd overall pick in 2008): The pick that, in many respects, changed the fortunes of the franchise. Ryan still has the playoff defeats lingering over his head, but his performances for the Falcons (including a quite incredible rookie year and under-appreciated 2010) have been exactly what the team needed and more. He has finished in the Top 5 of our regular season QB ratings in three out of his four years in the league. Yes, he did stagnate a bit in 2011 and Atlanta is hoping a new offensive coordinator takes him to the next level.
+1.0: The scouts nailed it!
Curtis Lofton, LB (37th overall pick in 2008): Lofton has flourished as a two-down linebacker, becoming a tackling machine from the middle linebacker spot. In 2008, he finished with our highest grade of any ILB in run defense, and was third in 2009. He hasn’t quite reached those heights since, but is one of the league’s better middle linebackers even if he can be something of a liability in coverage at times. He recently signed with the Saints to augment their linebacking corps.
Kroy Biermann, DE (154th overall pick in 2008): Took an unfair amount of criticism for the Falcons’ inability to get to the passer in 2010, losing his starting spot as a result. Responded with his worst season to date, but that shouldn’t take away from the consistent amount of pressure Biermann has generated. All in all, 126 combined sacks, hits and hurries in four years is great value for a fifth-rounder.
Sean Weatherspoon, LB (19th overall pick in 2010): Had problems with performance and injury as a rookie, but bounced back with a splendid 2011. An exceptional athlete, Weatherspoon finished 2011 our fifth-ranked 4-3 OLB in the league. With room to improve (particularly in coverage), Weatherspoon could be one of the league’s best.
+0.5: Never hurts to find a solid contributor
Thomas DeCoud, S (98th overall pick in 2008): While DeCoud will never be one of the league’s top safeties, he is a solid starter who has managed 3,062 snaps for the Falcons and earned a +5.2 grade over that time. A good value in the third.
William Moore, S (55th overall pick in 2009): Moore took over of the starting safety spots in his sophomore season. Despite missing time due to being hurt in 2011, he has developed into a playmaker. Moore is at times a little overaggressive and prone to being out of position. He’s a good complement to DeCoud in that respect.
Vance Walker, DT (210th overall pick in 2009): Walker isn’t going to be going to a Pro Bowl any time soon, but the former seventh-rounder got on the field more than former first round pick Peria Jerry in 2011 and has acquitted himself well.
Corey Peters, DT (83rd overall pick in 2010): The former late third round pick has been a starter since Week 2 of his rookie year. Peters has turned into a player capable of holding up to long stretches on the field while being able to make plays. He should contribute for a long time in the Falcons’ defense.
Dominique Franks, CB (135th overall pick in 2010): Injuries forced him into the starting lineup last year and Franks actually coped with the demands placed upon him. Already having surpassed Chris Owens for the slot cornerback role, he’s a versatile player who provides good depth and a readiness to step onto the field.
0.0: It could have been worse
Harry Douglas, WR (84th overall pick in 2008): After missing all of 2009 with an ACL tear, Douglas hasn’t quite developed into the receiver the Falcons thought they would have. Still, he did have an exciting rookie year.
Robert James, LB (138th overall pick in 2008): James has bounced between the active roster, practice squad and reserved/suspended lists over four years.
Thomas Brown, RB (172nd overall pick in 2008): Missed his rookie year with a torn abductor muscle and was then waived by the Falcons a year later.
Keith Zinger, TE (232nd overall pick in 2008): Got on the field in 2009, dropping the one ball thrown his way, but is actually looking like a decent run blocker in 104 snaps.
Lawrence Sidbury, DE (125th overall pick in 2009): While he hasn’t really been given much of an opportunity to shine, Sidbury has flashed pass rushing ability, particularly in 2011. His return of 17 combined sacks, hits and hurries from 127 pass rushes indicates the Falcons should look to get more out of him.
William Middleton, CB (138th overall pick in 2009): You feel the Falcons wanted Middleton to develop with them (after the Bucs claimed him off waivers and then released him, they found a spot for him on their practice squad), but they couldn’t stop Jacksonville signing him to their active roster where he’s actually turned into a decent nickel corner.
Spencer Adkins, LB (176th overall pick in 2009): 77 snaps on defense and nine special teams tackles. You could get a lot less for a former sixth round pick.
Joe Hawley, C (117th overall pick in 2010): Was at times shaky when presented with a starting role at center and guard in 2011, but held up for the most part with six positively-graded games. Overall, Hawley needs to be better with his run blocking if he wants to be a long term starter.
Kerry Meier, WR (165th overall pick in 2010): After a hot start to his rookie training camp, Meier tore his ACL and has been fighting his way back to health since.
Shann Schillinger, S (171st overall pick in 2010): May never earn a spot on defense, but has notched 13 special teams tackles in two years.
-0.5: That pick was not put to good use
Chevis Jackson, CB (68th overall pick in 2008): The early third round pick got a chance to play as a rookie and sophomore, managing 802 snaps. Overall, he was largely disappointing and released after two years with the team.
Wilrey Fontenot, CB (212th overall pick in 2008): Didn’t make the Falcons’ regular season roster after being cut as a rookie.
Peria Jerry, DT (24th overall pick in 2009): What the Falcons have received out of Jerry would normally garner a lower grade, but the devastating injury he suffered in his second NFL game means the Falcons have not got (nor may ever get) the best out of him.
Chris Owens, CB (90th overall pick in 2009): It’s telling that he has slipped further down the depth chart each year as the Falcons realize they overdrafted Owens in the third. 998 snaps on defense have resulted in a -15.0 grade in his short career.
Garrett Reynolds, G (156th overall pick in 2009): Got his chance to start in 2011 and it did not go well. Finished the year with a -13.8 grade and doesn’t look like a starting-caliber player.
Mike Johnson, G (98th overall pick in 2010): The former third-rounder has been something of a disappointment. Never far from the trainer’s table, Johnson was unable to beat out some pretty poor competition for the 2011 starting right guard spot.
-1.0: What a waste!
Sam Baker, T (21st overall pick in 2008): The more Baker has played, the more teams have exposed him. Granted, he has played through a back injury that has limited his performance. So far at this stage he’s been a waste of a first round pick, amassing a -52.5 grade in four years worth of action.
-1.5: The scouts/ coaches failed, big time!
-2.0: You just drafted the love child of JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf!
No Russell/ Leaf hybrids in this draft.
You can’t buy yourself much more leeway than what the Falcons did in 2008 when they drafted a class that changed the fortunes of the franchise. Indeed, it’s extremely rare to find six players from one draft group to have played so much for a team, especially one that snared them a franchise quarterback. Since then, it’s been a mixed bag, with the 2009 group largely being disappointing and 2010 looking far more promising (especially on the defensive side of the ball). If there’s one criticism, it’s that Atlanta needs a bigger impact from some of its draft selections, as opposed to the solid, consistent type they’ve been getting.