Nothing can change the course of a franchise quite like nailing a draft pick. Given the cost effectiveness and ability to keep a player under contract during the prime of his career, teams who draft well often have a leg up on the rest of the league.
As the dog days of summer continue, CBSSports.com writer Josh Edwards took a look at which player was the best pick at every single spot in the draft over the last 50 years. While it's important to hit on any pick in the draft, it's even more important to draft the correct player with one of the highest picks. The Falcons did just that in 1989 when they drafted Deion Sanders, one of the most popular players in franchise and league history.
"It was essentially a coin toss between LaDainian Tomlinson and Sanders," Edwards said of the choice at No. 5. "It is more complicated attempting to quantify Sanders' illustrious career. In addition to his time served as a professional baseball player, the former Seminole recorded 53 interceptions and appeared in eight Pro Bowls."
Sanders wasn't the only pick the Falcons made that stood among all others in the league. In total, the Falcons made seven picks in the last 50 years that Edwards deemed better than any other at the spot that player was taken: Brett Favre (No. 33), Grady Jarrett (No. 137), Ray Brown (No. 148), Jamal Anderson (No. 201), Tom Pridemore (No. 236), Todd McClure (No. 237).
Jarrett and McClure are the two most recent Falcons selections on this list, and they have been among the most impactful players for the franchise over the past two decades. After signing a new contract extension ahead of the 2019 season, Jarrett earned his first Pro Bowl nod and continued to make his case as one of the best defensive tackles in the league.
"Jarrett is a dream for an NFL general manager, as the Falcons invested a fifth round pick and got a Pro Bowl caliber player in return, with his first trip to the all-star game coming last year," Edwards writes. "Jarrett has managed 21.5 sacks in 77 games (62 starts) thus far."
To see the rest of Edwards' list of best draft picks, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
NFL.com: Key homegrown player for each team
Before an abdominal injury cut his season short, Calvin Ridley was on pace to break 1,000 receiving yards in his second NFL season. Even more impressive, Ridley's 17 touchdown catches since 2018 are the third-most by a receiver in the league, ahead of such players like Mike Evans, Stefon Diggs and Julian Edelman.
Everyone around the NFL knows how excellent Julio Jones is, but Ridley's improvement could again give the Falcons one of the best receiver duos in the league. Matt Ryan enjoyed throwing the ball to Jones and Roddy White during the first half of his career, and if Ridley takes another step forward in his development in his third season, the Falcons could again provide their quarterback with two legitimate No. 1 receivers.
In a list of the key homegrown players for each NFL team in 2020, "Around the NFL" editor Gregg Rosenthal named Ridley as the Falcons' most important breakout option.
"Ridley is good. Can he be great? A third-year player who is turning 26 years old this season, he started putting up monster numbers after the Falcons traded Mohamed Sanu at midseason," Rosenthal writes. "An abdominal injury curtailed Ridley's run, where he had finally combined his silky smooth routes with great plays after the catch. His game speed also improved. Ridley is a solid second banana, but the Falcons would love for Julio Jones and Ridley to produce like two WR1s after the team failed to address its lack of receiver depth this offseason."
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was similarly impressed with Ridley's play in their first season working together, and he believes there's another level the third-year receiver can reach. If that happens, Ridley may take the entire offense up a notch with him.
To see the rest of Rosenthal's list of key homegrown players, click here.
NFL.com: 10 best QBs under pressure
During the 2019 season, Matt Ryan was sacked 48 times, the most in a single season of his 12-year NFL career. Despite the pressure that Ryan faces throughout a season, he continues to perform at an extremely high level.
In fact, it's that ability to make pinpoint throws with defenders bearing down on him that makes Ryan such a special quarterback, and NFL.com writer Nick Shook highlighted that quality in his recent ranking of the best passers in the league while under presser. Using Next Gen Stats Shook determined that Ryan ranked seventh among all quarterbacks while throwing under pressure last season. Ryan had a 78.4 passer rating under pressure and a completion rate 2.9 percent higher than expected in those moments.
"We shouldn't be all that surprised," Shook writes of Ryan's place on this list. "No one in the NFL owns a higher passer rating under pressure in every season combined since 2016 than Ryan, whose mark of 87.9 puts him at the head of a top-five list that also includes Stafford, Alex Smith, Tom Brady (82.9) and Mahomes (81.2). Only Brady has thrown more touchdown passes while under pressure (30) than Ryan (27) since 2016. Ryan owns the highest passer rating that didn't occur in 2019, too, with his 104.9 mark from 2016 sitting third in the top five passer ratings under pressure since 2016. And for those who will say most of these combined numbers are inflated by that memorable run to Super Bowl LI in 2016, here's the numerical retort you weren't seeking: Ryan tied for the third most touchdown passes thrown under pressure in a single season with nine, and he did so in 2018."
With Ryan still making plays, the Falcons should always have an opportunity to boast one of the league's best offenses. Atlanta has retooled its offense a bit this offseason, but the Falcons still have plenty of weapons around their former NFL MVP.
To see the rest of Shook's ranking, click here.
The Ringer: 7 players who need a breakout season
This offseason, the Falcons have acquired several former first-round picks, seemingly taking on a few reclamation projects in the process. Among the big-name players that were former first-round picks are Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler, who figure to have a big role on both the offense and the defense.
Hayden Hurst is another former first-round pick who is expected to do big things in Atlanta, although that's more of a projection than a calculation based on past production. Hurst has the necessary athleticism to become a weapon for the Falcons, but he didn't carve out a premier role during his two seasons with the Ravens. For that reason, Hurst is one of the seven players who Danny Kelly names as one of the seven players who need to have a breakout season in a piece he wrote for The Ringer.
"But while Hurst's tenure with the Ravens could be characterized as a bust, the 26-year-old pass catcher finds himself with a new lease on life in Atlanta, where he falls into what could be a near-ideal situation," Kelly writes. "With Austin Hooper landing in Cleveland on a big-money deal, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is in need of a dynamic pass-catching tight end. Hurst could certainly be that guy―the team clearly believes he is, based on what they gave up to acquire him―but the former Raven must prove he's up to the task before he inherits a big chunk of Hooper's 97 targets from last season. Hurst, perhaps more than anyone on this list, has a good chance to jump-start his stalled career in 2020."
Keeping in theme with the Falcons' offseason, Hurst wasn't the only Atlanta player on Kelly's list. The Falcons were reportedly interested in former Missouri pass rusher Charles Harris ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft, but he was off the board before Atlanta came on the clock. His career in Miami didn't get off to the start many expected, but he'll now have an opportunity to get back on track as part of the Falcons' defensive line rotation.
"Now Harris will get what could be his last real shot in Atlanta," Kelly writes. "The Falcons offer as strong an opportunity as he could hope for with a roster that lacks depth in its pass-rush rotation even after signing Dante Fowler in free agency. Head coach Dan Quinn said recently that he expects the former Dolphin to be a part of the team's edge rushing rotation, and that they're hoping to "get the best version of him," adding that they'll work to determine what weight Harris should play at to maximize his explosiveness off the edge. After disappointing in Miami, a change of scenery could be what Harris needs to finally make a jump."
There's one more player not listed on Kelly's list, but who might have a good opportunity to put together the best season of his career in his first run with the Falcons. Another former first-rounder, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, didn't become a primary weapon while with the Minnesota Vikings, but the Falcons have proven adept at developing wide receivers. With great players to learn from and Matt Ryan throwing him the ball, Treadwell may take the next step in his development.
To see the rest of Kelly's list for The Ringer, click here.
AJC: Goodbye John Zook, a classic Falcon
Former Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Zook died Saturday at the age of 72 after a long battle with cancer, according to a report by Steve Hummer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Zook played for seven seasons with the Falcons from 1969-75, pairing with Hall of Fame defensive end Claude Humphrey to give Atlanta a dependable pass rush off the edge. The two defensive ends were named to the Pro Bowl after the 1973 season, when the Falcons won a franchise-best nine games.
"The most fun I had the whole time I played football was the time John and I had that (1973) season when we were both selected to the Pro Bowl," Humphrey told Hummer. "We had it down pat, man, I tell you. We figured out we were better together than we were individually."
Zook's time with the Falcons came prior to the era when sacks became an officially chronicled statistic, but, like Humphrey, those who saw Zook play can attest to how great of a defender he was. Among the stats that are attributed to Zook, however, is the first safety in Falcons franchise history, which occurred in 1971.
Hummer wrote a fitting tribute to Zook and his time with the Falcons, which you can read here.
NFL.com: State of the Falcons franchise
After back-to-back 7-9 finishes, the Falcons are all in on making a return trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Atlanta retained a majority of its coaching staff, including head coach Dan Quinn and all three coordinators from the end of the 2019 season, and the organization is betting that continuity will pay off.
In the midst of the offseason, NFL.com writer Adam Rank took a look at the state of the Falcons franchise heading into the 2020 season. It's a pretty thorough dive into the team, and worth a read in its entirety. Rank's piece is broken down into a variety of sections, including one about the important players for the upcoming season. In that section, he names Calvin Ridley as his choice for this year's breakout star.
"A lot of people (especially me, from a selfish fantasy perspective) would love to see Ridley make a Chris Godwin-like leap in his third NFL season," Ranks writes. "Consider these numbers (all of which, of course, come from Next Gen Stats): Ridley was 16th in catch percentage last year (67.7%, among receivers with 50-plus targets), but sixth in catch percentage above expectation (59.0). Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 113.5 when targeting him, 12th in the NFL. Julio can still dominate like he does, but it feels like Ridley's time to take over."
There's a lot of good information in Rank's article, and it's something any Falcons fan would like enjoy as a primer for the upcoming year. You can read the entire piece, here.