The Atlanta Falcons have established a long and proud history since joining the National Football League in 1965. Since the turn of the millennium, the team has experienced a roller coaster of success and turmoil, but always seems to be able to "Rise Up" when times get too dreadful. Currently, the Falcons are one of the "it" teams in the NFL and will represent the NFC in the upcoming Super Bowl LI against the legendary Tom Brady led New England Patriots.
A win would mean so much to the city of Atlanta. It would help erase the hurt that occurred when Michael Vick was arrested and charged with running a dog-fighting ring. It would establish Matt Ryan as being a true franchise quarterback, capable of winning the biggest of big games. And it would be a significant time for a major city, brimming with diversity to come together as one to support their beloved Dirty Birds.
With that in mind, this list reflects on the Falcons franchise since the year 2000. It provides insight on who the best players have been since that time, while also calling out several of the worst. The players mentioned here were either all-time greats for the Falcons (best), or were frustratingly unable to live up to their expectations (worst). In that regard, some of the worst players mentioned here were not terrible players, but they hurt the franchise by not fulfilling their true potential. As the Falcons prepare for Super Bowl LI, let's take a look into the brief past to find out who were/are the best 8 and 7 worst Falcons players since the year 2000.
15 Best: Tony Gonzalez, TE
By the time Tony Gonzalez joined the Falcons, he had already established himself as the greatest tight end of all time. Gonzalez was stuck on a muddling Kansas City Chiefs team and wanted to spend the twilight of his career with a Super Bowl contender. Atlanta was coming off an 11-5 record in 2008 and an upset loss to the Arizona Cardinals (who would go on to the Super Bowl that year) in the wild card round of the playoffs.
The Falcons believed Tony Gonzalez could be the missing piece and promptly traded a second round pick in exchange for the sure-fire hall-of-famer. Gonzalez continued his magnificent play as a member of the Falcons and was named to the Pro Bowl in each of the 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 seasons. In 2012, Gonzalez caught his 100th career touchdown, becoming the only tight end in history to reach that milestone. Overall, Gonzalez was a talented, veteran leader for a young and hungry Falcons squad.
14 Worst: Michael Jenkins, WR
Michael Jenkins was a stud in college at Ohio State and was key piece in the Buckeyes' 2002 National Championship. His impressive collegiate career led to him being drafted 29th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft by the Falcons, who were desperate for a big time receiver to pair with young quarterback Michael Vick. Instead, Jenkins ended his rookie season with 7 receptions for 119 yards.
The fact that Jenkins was viewed as a potential #1 receiver and the Falcons used a first round pick in acquiring him placed high expectations for the young and speedy receiver. Whether it was fair or not to have those expectations, Jenkins fell far short in terms of his production value and never developed into much more than a complimentary piece on an offense in need of much more. It was clear that the Falcons no longer viewed Jenkins as a #1 receiver once they drafted the next man on this list in the following draft.
13 Best: Roddy White, WR
Although they had just used their 2004 first round draft pick on receiver Michael Jenkins, the Falcons could not pass up on the opportunity to select Roddy White, the monster wide-receiver out of University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2005. It took a few seasons for White to adapt to the speed of the NFL, but in 2007 he broke out with his first 1,000 yard campaign and also added 6 touchdowns. This was just the start of White's illustrious career in Atlanta.
White had six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (2007-2012) and was named to four Pro Bowls during that stretch. In total, White played all 11 of his seasons with the Falcons and broke several franchise receiving records including; most career receiving yards (10,863); most receiving touchdowns in career (63); and most career receptions (808). Simply put, White is the statistical leader in every major receiving category for the Falcons franchise. For that, he is well deserving of a spot on this list.
12 Worst: Joey Harrington, QB
Joey Harrington is often considered one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history. Harrington was drafted #3 overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2002 NFL Draft and proceeded to have an uninspiring career for the talent deprived Lions and Dolphins. In 2007, Harrington was signed by the Falcons to compete with Chris Redman for the back-up quarterback position behind Michael Vick.
Once Michael Vick received his suspension (and prison sentence) in 2007, Harrington was thrust into the starting role for the Falcons. He continued his struggles and led the team to a pitiful 3-7 record before being replaced by journeyman Byron Leftwich, who did not fair much better than Harrington. The poor quarterback play and negative press revolving around the Falcons in 2007 caused head coach Bobby Petrino to shockingly resign mid-season. Needless to say, the Falcons had hit rock-bottom and even at that bottom they still felt comfortable releasing Harrington. Not surprisingly, Harrington never played another game in the NFL after that season.
11 Best: John Abraham, LB
After finishing his career with the 12th highest sack total (133.5) in NFL history, it was clear that John Abraham was one of the best pure pass rushers the league had ever seen. Falcons fans were fortunate enough to witness Abraham's skill set and dominance for seven seasons, in which he consistently provided the team with their only true pass rushing threat. He posted a double digit sack total in four of his seasons with the Falcons, but somehow was only named to one Pro Bowl in his time with the team.
Inexplicably, Abraham was left off the Pro Bowl roster in 2008 despite finishing the season with a career high 16.5 sacks. His presence made opposing quarterbacks very aware of his constant attack from the edge and he had a knack for strip-sacks, averaging nearly 4 per season with the Falcons. Although Abraham became a cap casualty in 2012, even after finishing the 2011 season with 10 sacks, he will always be remembered for his relentlessness against the NFC South quarterbacks during his time in Atlanta.
10 Worst: Chris Houston, CB
For some reason, the Falcons have always had trouble at the cornerback position. The team always has a true #1 corner (i.e., DeAngelo Hall, Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel, etc.) but cannot seem to sign their studs to long-term contracts, and the no.2 corners always seem to struggle. Houston was drafted in 2007 to be a potential replacement for DeAngelo Hall and was immediately given great responsibility in the Falcons defense, starting 11 games in his rookie season.
While Houston had some memorable plays, especially his first career interception in 2008, which he returned for a pick-six, the better part of his time in Atlanta was frustrating to watch for Falcons fans as Houston's over-aggressiveness often led to him giving up big plays down the field to opposing receivers. His inability to attack the ball was also apparent by the fact that he only had three interceptions in his three years with the Falcons. Houston was ultimately traded to the Lions with Atlanta receiving practically nothing in return.
9 Best: Warrick Dunn, RB
Although Warrick Dunn is often remembered for his two stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, some of his best play occurred during his six seasons with the Falcons. Dunn was signed by Atlanta in 2002 and eventually created a three-headed rushing attack with quarterback Michael Vick and fellow running-back T.J. Duckett. The Falcons became a team centered around the rushing attack and the trio caused many headaches for opposing defensive coordinators.
Dunn had his best season in 2005, when he rushed for over 1,400 yards and held an impressive 5.1 yards per carry average. The following season, Dunn and Vick dominated opponents with their ground game as both players finished the season with over 1,000 yards rushing. The future looked promising for Atlanta but once the franchise began to unravel in 2007, Dunn asked to be released so he could return to his former team, the Buccaneers. Regardless, when Dunn and Vick were together in Atlanta, it was some of the most fun football the league has ever seen.
8 Worst: Jamaal Anderson, DE
I'm sure when most people hear the name Jamal Anderson in reference to the Falcons they immediately think of the great running back by the same name. But this list refers to the other Jamaal Anderson, a defensive end out of the University of Arkansas who the Falcons drafted with the 8th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Anderson, who switched from the wide receiver position to defensive end in college, was a disruptive force for the Razorbacks and finished his career with 17.5 sacks.
The Falcons selected Anderson high in the first round with the belief that he would continue to develop and become a true pass-rusher. Unfortunately, Anderson never did much for the Falcons and finished with only 4.5 sacks in his four seasons in Atlanta. The Falcons decided to cut ties with Anderson when they released him in 2011, all but cementing his status as a major draft bust for then general manager Rich McKay. The 2007 season was an all-around tough time for the Falcons franchise and the failures of Anderson only added to the distractions.
7 Best: Keith Brooking, LB
As the 12th overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the Falcons were banking highly on the idea that Keith Brooking would become a cornerstone for their franchise for years to come. Brooking didn’t just become a reliable linebacker for the team, he became one the best defensive players in franchise history. Brooking was selected to the Pro Bowl in five straight seasons from 2001 to 2005, and had a career high 144 tackles in 2003.
Brooking’s impact on the Falcons extended far beyond his actual statistics. The leadership he provided for the defense was vital, as Brooking was essentially another coach on the field. He was also incredibly reliable, as he started every single game for the Falcons from 2001 to 2008. Lastly, Brooking was a leader in the community. Although he did not finish his career in Atlanta, Brooking will always be a Falcon at heart.
6 Worst: Steven Jackson, RB
If this were a list for the “eight best St. Louis Rams since 2000,” Steven Jackson would surely make the list. While with the Rams, Jackson ran for over 1,000 yards in eight straight seasons and established himself as one of the premier running backs in the NFL. Atlanta made a big offseason splash in 2013 when they signed the aging Jackson to a three year, $12 million contract.
In theory the signing made a lot of sense. Jackson got to finally play for a contender and the Falcons gained a reliable running back who was coming off his 8th straight 1,000-yard season. What could go wrong? Well injuries and age really began to take their toll on Jackson and he never truly looked comfortable in the Atlanta backfield. He had clearly lost the burst and power that were his trademark skills. Jackson never got going and the Falcons finished 4-12, a major disappointment for a team that thought they had found their only missing piece in Jackson.
5 Best: Julio Jones, WR
Although the Falcons clearly had their wide-receiving issues in the early 2000s, the team made sure that they were set at the position for years to come when they drafted Julio Jones with the no.6 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Measuring at 6’3”, 220 pounds, and running a 4.39 40-yard dash, Jones is an absolute freak of nature. Jones has the size and strength to be a possession receiver, but also has the speed and elusiveness to be a big-play threat from anywhere on the field.
Jones partnered with Roddy White to create one of the most formidable one-two punches in the NFL. The duo gave Matt Ryan two game-changing receivers and completely flipped the Falcons offense from being a run-based team to a high-flying air attack. In 2015, Jones was otherworldly when he caught 136 passes, for 1,871 yards and 8 touchdowns. This season he continued his dominance and even added a 180 yard and 2 touchdown performance in the NFC Championship game. Jones will eventually break all of Roddy White’s franchise records and go down as the best Falcons receiver of all-time.
4 Worst: Peerless Price, WR
As a member of the Buffalo Bills, Peerless Price showed serious potential to be a future star at the wide receiver position. In 2002, his last season in Buffalo, Price caught 94 passes for 1,252 yards and 9 touchdowns. The Bills wanted to keep Price but knew they would not be able to afford his heavy free agent price tag, so they franchised him and allowed him to seek a potential trade suitor.
In come the Falcons, who were in desperate need for a playmaking wide receiver (was a common theme for the Falcons in the early 2000s). The Falcons traded the Bills a first round pick for the rights to sign Price and then signed him to a whopping seven-year, $35 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus. Price was expected to blossom into a star in Atlanta, but it never occurred. Price regressed from his strong 2002 campaign and was so disappointing for the Falcons that they released him after only two seasons. The fact that Atlanta gave up a first round pick and over $10 million in exchange for two lousy seasons makes Price one of the worst Falcons in this millennium.
3 Best: Michael Vick, QB
When fans think of the Atlanta Falcons since the 2000s, for many the first thought will be of Michael Vick. Obviously the first thought when people think of Michael Vick, however, is his arrest and subsequent jail sentence for leading an illegal multi-state dog fighting ring. Vick ultimately served 21 months in federal prison for his role in the illegal activity. But viewing his legacy with the Falcons from purely a statistical standpoint, it is clear that Vick is one of the greatest Falcons of all time.
Vick was a game-changer. Plain and simple. No player in Falcons history had a more polarizing effect on the city of Atlanta than Michael Vick in the early 2000s. The people of Atlanta lived and died with every incredible play Vick would execute that week. There has never been another quarterback like Vick, and there probably never will be. In 2006, Vick achieved an incredible feat when he threw for over 2,400 yards and 20 touchdowns, while also rushing for over 1,000 yards. The things he could do on a football field in his prime were legendary and the NFL will never see anything like the “Michael Vick Experience” that would take place on Sundays in the early 2000s.
2 Worst: Michael Vick, QB
A friend of mine who is from Atlanta once told me that Michael Vick was the best and worst thing that ever happened to the Falcons franchise. That sentiment hit home while writing this piece and it holds much truth as it pertains to creating this list. Michael Vick was one of the greatest Falcons of all time based on his play and aura that brought to the city and the franchise. But Michael Vick also really caused a lot of damage to the team and his loyal followers with his horrible off-field actions.
Vick deserves to be on this list as one of the best players, but he equally deserves to be on this list as one of the worst for the repercussions that took place after his suspension in 2007. The Falcons were sent into turmoil. Their franchise player had suddenly become a villain and the team couldn’t overcome the constant distractions that Vick created. The team limped to a four win season in 2007 but lucked out in drafting Matt Ryan in the following draft with the no.3 overall pick. Ryan led a quick turnaround, but Vick’s damage remained and the team was left with a black eye that continues to linger to this day. For the let-down and the hurt he caused Falcons fans, Vick also comes in as one of the worst Falcons since 2000.
1 Best: Matt Ryan, QB
As previously mentioned, Falcons fans can’t hold a grudge on Michael Vick for too long because their consolation prize for losing in 2007 turned out to be Matt Ryan, already the franchise's best quarterback of all-time. Ryan was immediately thrusted into the starting position as a rookie and made a great first impression by completing his first ever NFL pass for a 62-yard touchdown bomb. Since that day, Ryan has gone on to start 142 of the next 144 games for the Falcons and is one of the most reliable quarterbacks currently in the NFL. The one knock on Ryan throughout his career was that he has struggled in the playoffs.
In 2016, Ryan put-up MVP caliber numbers in the regular season, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards, 38 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions. He is also putting the negative playoff stigma behind him as he has absolutely embarrassed the competition so far this playoff season. Through the divisional and conference championship rounds, Ryan has already thrown for 730 yards and 7 touchdowns. Even more notable is that Ryan threw zero interceptions in those games. If he can continue his stellar play in the Super Bowl, he will surely go down in Falcons lore.