The Ten Best “Steals” in Atlanta History

Just for a change of pace, I went with a sports blog this week. These ten players came out of nowhere in the draft to make their name with the Falcons.

Anyone who has known me for more than 10 minutes recognizes that I am a crazy fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even my coronavirus mask proves it.

But this wasn’t always the case. In my early life, we got one team every Sunday on our old school Magnavox console TV, and that team was the Atlanta Falcons. And I grew into one of the world’s saddest creatures: a Falcons fan.

quasar-moon-copy-copy-678x381
Anyone else have a high-tech beauty like this–all the way through high school?

I went nuts when the Falcons won their first playoff game against Philadelphia on Christmas Eve, 1978. I watched with my dad as Steve Bartkowski hit Wallace Francis with the game winner, right before we had to leave for church.

Then I died a little when they lost in Dallas in the ’78 playoffs. I died a lot when they lost to the Cowboys again in the ’80 divisional round, in the old Fulton County stadium. For the record, I have hated everything about the Cowboys for the remainder of my life, with the burning passion of 1000 suns.

1978
Watching this play with my dad was one of many things to seal my love of the game.

This is not to mention the loss to the Redskins in the ’91 playoffs and the horror of Super Bowl XXXIII. And especially in the “Super Bowl that will not be named.”

But a post from a new twitter follower (@FatboiSlim_21) about horrible Falcons draft choices (and there are many options to choose) got me thinking. Where did the Falcons find extraordinary value in the draft or unsigned free agents over the years?

Just for fun, here are the best values for the Falcons in their history.

10. William Andrews – Okay, Andrews wasn’t exactly a “steal” in the 3rd round, which is why he comes in at #10. And I have some serious bias here as he is probably my second-favorite Falcon of all time.

But keep in mind that he was arguably on his way to being one of the greatest—if not the greatest—running backs in history if injuries had not derailed his career. With the bruising style of Jim Brown, speed of Eric Dickerson, hands of a wide receiver, and a 4.6 YPC average, Andrews was surely a steal as a R3 fullback.

And he was about the only player that could convince Steve Bartkowski to throw a pass shorter than a 50-yard bomb. And if you have any questions about Andrews’ greatness, just watch this play.

9. Alfred Jenkins – Again, Jenkins is one of my personal favorites. He spent his first season in the long-defunct World Football League before he signed with Atlanta. As Steve Bartkowski’s favorite target, Jenkins became a highly underrated wide receiver. This followed his career at the football powerhouse known as Morris Brown College.

I remember a story that Jenkins was legally blind but refused to wear glasses because he felt that it forced him to concentrate. That may or may not be true. But without question, Jenkins’ 17.4 YPC average places him among the great steals that the Falcons’ front office ever discovered.

8. Jeff Merrow – As an 11th round pick in the days of a 12-round draft, Merrow was not the most noteworthy player. Selected in 1975, sacks were not a statistic for the majority of his career.

In spite of this, Merrow was a model of consistency as a defensive end in the 3-4 scheme, where down linemen rarely get sacks. He started over 100 games for the Birds over his 9-year career. That’s exceptional consistency and value for a guy who would be undrafted in the modern era.

7. Grady Jarrett – It may be a little early to place Jarrett on this list. But a 5th round pick at nose guard who produces 21.5 sacks is exceptional value in the modern era. As a Steeler fan, I surely wish they had selected him to play in the 3-4 scheme. He’s also the son of someone who will appear further up on this list.

jarret
How on earth did this guy hang around until R5?

 

6. Joel Williams – Once again, I am showing partiality to the 1980 team. After all, I did own a #10 Steve Bartkowski jersey.

Joel Williams had 15.5 sacks that season (unofficial), a record that stood 28 years until John Abraham broke it in 2008. After joining the team in 1979, Williams retired as a Falcon in 1989. Coming from Wisonsin-La Crosse, that’s a pretty solid 11-year career.

5. Rolland Lawrence – The career interceptions leader for the Atlanta Falcons is truly a sad story. After joining the team as an UFA in 1973, Lawrence never missed a game until the end of his career in 1980. He still holds the team’s all-time record with 39 interceptions and made All-Pro in 1977.

In spite of his consistency, Lawrence took the load of the blame for the Falcons’ loss in the 1980 playoffs. After giving up the game winning touchdown on a fluke pass, the front office declared that Lawrence would never play for the Falcons again. And he didn’t—in spite of the fact that the loss was obviously not his fault.

Such a player clearly deserves much more recognition for his role in Falcons’ history.

4. Michael Haynes – As a round 7 draft pick in 1988, Haynes became a serious threat in the Jerry Glanville Run-and-Shoot offense. 47 career touchdowns and a 15.4 YPR average are pretty good for an unknown player out of Northern Arizona.

Haynes was the deep threat needed to allow the wealth of Falcons’ receivers run the short, quick routes that are essential to the Run-and-Shoot system. Although he departed for three seasons with the hated Saints, he came back for one last season to complete his career in Atlanta. That makes him a serious still at pick #166.

3. Jamaal Anderson – How could you ignore the icon of the “Dirty Bird” dance of 1998? The 7th round pick out of Utah practically hauled the Falcons on his shoulders in 1998, all the way to Super Bowl XXXIII.

jandersonAnderson’s career was cut short by injuries, an all too familiar tale for NFL running backs. But what a career it was, amassing 4927 rushing yards in just four full seasons as a starter. Often overlooked is his skill as a receiver, where he amassed a career-high 49 catches in 1996 and 42 in 2000.

With a whopping 437 touches in 1998 (11th highest all-time), Anderson deserved the MVP award for that season. Once again, like many running backs, he was never the same after that workhorse season. He left the game after ruining his knee in 2001 and has struggled mightily with life after football. Still, few 7th-rounders ever accomplished what he did during a career.

 

2. Jeff Van Note – It pains me to put Van Note at number two. Offensive linemen are, of course, the smartest and most valuable players on the field. (Anyone want to guess what position I played?).

The Falcons drafted Jeff Van Note as a linebacker from the University of Kentucky in the 11th round of the 1969 draft. He then moved to offensive line. All he did from that point was start 226 games, make six pro bowls, and receive two all-pro selections. He was the face of the Falcons in the best and the worst of times, an unequivocal team leader for 18 seasons. He never played for any other team.

The only sad part of this tale is that Van Note is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, likely because he played in the same era as many of the great centers in history (who often played for better teams). This error will hopefully be corrected while Jeff Van Note is alive to see it.

1. Jessie Tuggle – #1 and #2 couldn’t be much closer here. But by the slightest of margins, Tuggle gets the nod for the Falcons’ greatest steal of a deal. One reason is that he is the father of the #7 name on this list.

The other reasons are plentiful. As an undrafted free agent from Division II Valdosta State, Tuggle too short, too light, and too slow to be a solid middle linebacker in the NFL.

Or so everyone thought.

tuggle
Tuggle was especially brutal against the run.

Ignoring the odds, he became the unquestioned face and leader of the franchise for 14 seasons. He earned three all-pro selections, made the pro bowl five times, and led the Falcons to their first Super Bowl following the 1998 season. He was respected as one of the great overachievers in the league with his uncanny nose for the football and the ability to knock the slobber out of his opponents. He was one of the most respected defenders in the NFL throughout his career.

Jessie Tuggle had chances to move along to more successful franchises, but he chose to make Atlanta his one and only team. Sadly, rumor has it that Tuggle has suffered from concussion-related issues following his career. He long held the NFL record for most fumble recoveries for touchdowns.

Honorable Mention (in no particular order) – Tom Pridemore, Brian Finneran, Robert Garza, Alfred Jackson, Fulton Kuykendall, Travis Hall, Erric Peagram, Devonta Freeman

That’s the list—and feel free to disagree or point out players I may have missed. The Falcons have had some wretched draft picks over the years, but they’ve also found some all-time diamonds in the rough.

Now, if they can just find their way back to some classic uniforms, we might really have something to discuss!

bartkowski

 

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