After the catastrophe that was 2007 for the Atlanta Falcons, it was time for a fresh start. A new GM and an entirely new (and honest) coaching staff were in place. Arthur Blank had engaged rebuilding mode.
And it would be this first draft that set the tone for the next four seasons under Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith. Had it been anything less than excellent, I'm pretty sure we'd be singing a completely different song. Dimitroff and Smitty might've been long gone by now, the team still searching for its image.
Thankfully, it wasn't.
Round 1: QB Matt Ryan
At first glance, the team's decision to take Ryan with the third overall pick might have seen incredibly obvious. The team had just suffered through a painful 2007 season that saw their star quarterback locked away. The team only won four games, and there was a massive need at quarterback after watching the likes of Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich flounder about on the field.
But unlike Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, Ryan was not a sure-fire No. 1 pick in the eyes of several general managers. This was a guy who threw 19 interceptions as a senior, and his arm strength had been under scrutiny as well. Miami and St. Louis, two teams that needed a quarterback, passed over Ryan. Tons of analysts had the Falcons taking LSU DT Glenn Dorsey.
But it was Ryan's intangibles, the leadership, and the need for a franchise face that got Dimitroff to bite on the baby-faced Boston College quarterback. All he did was win rookie of the year and lead the Falcons to four straight winning seasons. The Rams and Dolphins have been below the .500 mark ever since (exception: 2008 Dolphins). Franchise-changing pick.
Round 1: OT Sam Baker
Though he's an easy scapegoat for fans after the offensive line really disappointed last season, Baker came in and started all 16 games as a rookie. On the whole, he's been an average left tackle up until 2011, when injuries led to a very below-average campaign.
But he was meant to be Ryan's sure-fire blindside protector, and since 2010 he's been one step away from losing his job because he can't pass protect. After continuing to sit out after Will Svitek made some quality starts, I think his future in Atlanta is still pretty much sealed.
He might get one more shot to take it away from Svitek this season, but he won't be on the team by 2013. Baker has been a fringe starter, and that's not enough for a first-rounder, let alone someone you trade up for.
Round 2: LB Curtis Lofton
Like Baker and Ryan, Lofton came in and started as a rookie. He would then start every subsequent game for the next four years, racking up 492 tackles, seven forced fumbles and 18 "stuffs" in that time. He was a monster at playing the run, and admirably served as one of the leaders on defense.
Sure, he wasn't phenomenal in coverage, but he probably should've gone to at least one Pro Bowl in a Falcons uniform. All in all, this is exactly what you want out of a second-round pick, and considering several teams had question marks about his size and speed, the Falcons absolutely nailed this pick.
Round 3: CB Chevis Jackson
The first pick that isn't still on the team, Jackson was a raw corner out of LSU that the Falcons had hoped to develop into a serviceable starter, someone who could take over for the recently traded DeAngelo Hall.
But things just didn't turn out that way. He would get some extensive time as the team's nickelback and showed promise, but he never quite showed enough to win a starting job. He got a couple of spot starts, but was pretty disappointing in all of them. By 2010, he was off the team and would bounce around the waiver wire. You can't win them all.
Round 3: WR Harry Douglas, FS Thomas DeCoud
I group these together because Douglas and DeCoud have ended up being of a similar caliber. Both are capable starters and have their good (and bad) moments. But on the whole they are consistent and won't "wow" you on a consistent basis.
Douglas showed a ton of promise as a rookie, and in fact he'd probably get a higher grade were it not for injuries essentially taking away the '09 and '10 seasons for him. But he's been capable as the team's fourth receiving option (he even had an eight-catch, 133-yard performance against the Saints this year), and definitely earned his extension.
Likewise, DeCoud earned his extension for being a quality starter. He's had his fair share of missed tackles that lead to big plays over the years, but his skills as a ball-hawk make up for it. If DeCoud can flourish under Mike Nolan's new system, his extension could end up making him a steal signing.
Round 5: DE Kroy Biermann
Has Biermann been amazing? No. But he's made an impact and even a few game-changing plays (if anyone remembers this amazing interception), and for a fifth-round pick that is amazing.
He's been solid against the run, a quality rotational pass-rusher, and a major contributor on special teams as well. Having just signed a three-year extension, he's just another member of a class that continues to provide a solid core of players on the Falcons.
The Rest: LB Robert James, RB Thomas Brown, CB Wilrey Fontenot, TE Keith Zinger
With the exception of James, none of these guys are still on the team, and James has been exclusively a backup or practice squader for the past four years.
They were all picks that filled needs, but really the number of these late-round picks that don't pan out is staggering, so you can't really blame a GM for not finding contributors in the seventh round. Alas.
Final Grade: A-
Sure, Baker and Jackson were busts. But at the same time, Ryan, Lofton, Douglas, DeCoud, and Biermann were anywhere from good to slam-dunk draft picks. This draft is what set the new regime into motion, and is largely responsible for all the wins that ensued. Thomas Dimitroff would win Executive of the Year for a reason.
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