The Atlanta Falcons’ decision to send a wealth of picks in exchange for wide receiver Julio Jones was the seminal moment in the era co-founded by head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, which began in 2008.
That 2011 draft-day trade saw the Falcons send their first, second, and fourth-round picks in 2011 along with first and fourth-round picks in 2012 to the Cleveland Browns in order to move up 21 spots to nab Jones with the sixth overall selection.
Selecting quarterback Matt Ryan with the team’s top selection in 2008 was what set the course for the Falcons to experience the success over the next five seasons that culminated nearly in a Super Bowl berth at the end of 2012. But it was the Jones trade that cemented whether that early success would continue or come to a grinding halt.
As things currently stand with a 2-4 record in 2014, coming off a four-win season in 2013, it appears that early success has indeed ceased. Smith and Dimitroff are both on the hot seat, and it’s possible that both may not make it to an eighth season in 2015 in their respective roles.
The reason why the Jones trade has had a negative effect on the Falcons has little to do with Jones. Simply put, Jones has been nearly everything the Falcons could have wished for. He’s currently the team’s best player due to his playmaking skills and ability to consistently draw the focus of opposing defenses the past three seasons. The only knock against Jones has been his durability. He’s missed 14 games over the three-plus seasons he’s played in Atlanta, with the majority of them coming in 2013 when he missed the final 11 games with a foot injury that also bothered him upon his entry into the NFL.
Ryan and the Falcons have felt that absence, as the Falcons’ franchise quarterback largely becomes average whenever Jones is not on the field.
However, it is not Jones himself that has hurt the team, it was the plethora of picks that they sent to the Browns. The Browns failed to make the most out of the picks they acquired from the Falcons, selecting quarterback Brandon Weeden, wide receiver Greg Little and fullback Owen Marecic, none of whom are currently on the team. They also used the other picks acquired as part of draft-day trades to move up to get defensive tackle Phil Taylor and running back Trent Richardson, the latter of whom is also no longer a Brown.
But what the Browns failed to gain was still lost by the Falcons. The four net picks that Falcons gave up are basically four players that will never contribute to the team. However, Jones has been so good that many would argue he is worth as much or more than what those four potential Falcons could have been.
Yet, one can also argue that those four picks lost halved the team’s ability to acquire talent over the course of the 2011 and 2012 drafts. Essentially, the Falcons had the potential to up to add eight players in the first four rounds of those drafts and the trade took away half of them.
Over the past few years, I’ve conducted some research on grading drafts. Conventional wisdom indicates that one should wait three years before judging a draft. I’ve discovered that waiting five years gives a more accurate assessment. But for the sake of argument, let’s stick to the three-year benchmark. We’ve had three full seasons to assess the 2011 draft class, and are nearly midway through a third following the 2012 group and thus that should be sufficient for this exercise.
I looked at every draft selection made in the first four rounds of the 2011 and 2012 drafts, placing a grade on each. Rather than using the A through F grading system, I simplified things to indicate whether or not a player at this current time was a quality starter for each team or not. I factored in players entire careers to determine if their production and/or playing time was to a certain level to consider them fairly entrenched in their respective teams’ starting lineups. And players needed to still be playing with the teams that drafted them. So the Oakland Raiders got no credit for the fact that Joe Barksdale is currently a quality starter for the St. Louis Rams at right tackle.
While draft grading often focuses on the “efficiency” of picks, in this case the cumulative effect of picks was more important. Whether or not a team maximized their first-round selections is somewhat inconsequential if they were able to add quality talent in the second, third and/or fourth rounds.
And what I discovered is that the Falcons over the course of those two drafts were among the teams that had acquired the least amount of talent.
Jones was the only quality starter selected by the Falcons in the first four rounds of either 2011 or 2012’s drafts. The team’s other three remaining selections were spent on linebacker Akeem Dent, center Peter Konz and offensive tackle Lamar Holmes.
Dent is currently a reserve with the Houston Texans after three lackluster seasons in Atlanta. Konz is currently starting for the Falcons but playing at a level well below average and Holmes has been mostly a mixed bag as a below average starter too. He’s currently on injured reserve and was adequate over the first four games of this year following a disastrous 2013 campaign.
The Oakland Raiders were the only other NFL team that had just one quality starter selected in 2011-12: center Stefen Wisniewski. And the Raiders just fired their head coach Dennis Allen a few weeks ago and general manager Reggie McKenzie is also feeling the heat.
Every other NFL team had at least found two quality starters in that span. The Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts shared the lead with five quality starters found during that period.
Over the course of the first four rounds of the 2011 and 2012 drafts, 266 players were selected. Between all 32 teams, 101 of those I currently considered to be quality starters, or roughly three out of every eight.
So on average, every NFL team was able to find 3.16 quality starters. Meaning that had the Falcons not made the trade and kept all eight picks and drafted no better than an average team, they essentially lost two quality starters in that trade.
And while it’s unlikely either of those two would individually measure up against Jones, they certainly would help this current Falcons roster. In the ultimate team sport where a team must fill 22 starting positions, the ability to add even two more capable players to the lineup cannot be underestimated.
Essentially the downfall of the Jones trade had nothing to do with Jones, but everything to do with the inability of the Falcons to add quality players with their remaining selections. By trading away half their assets from 2011-12, the Falcons put themselves in a position where their efficiency needed to be better. The team needed to make sure that the three other picks that remained besides Jones really counted to make up for the four players they had no ability to pick.
Players like Dent, Konz and Holmes did not, and the talent that was lost is clearly effecting the team today.
Yet, I don’t think it’s quite fair to conclude that the Falcons should not have made the trade. I doubt the Falcons could have made it as far as the NFC Championship Game in 2012 without Jones being on the roster. So one can definitely argue there was an obvious and significant short-term gain by the end of Jones’ second season thanks largely to that move.
However, it does appear that the team’s inability to add any additional talent subsequent to Jones over the course of those two drafts has hurt the team long-term as the team has just won four of its last 16 games.
And in case you’re wondering, I did not completely discount the last three rounds of each draft. It certainly could have been more worthwhile had the Falcons found a quality starter or two with a late-round pick to make up for the misses embodied in Dent, Konz and Holmes.
The Falcons did get a quality starter in the form of punter Matt Bosher, although one can wonder how much additional value a team gets from having a quality specialist. Bosher doesn’t appear to be adding as much value as a pair of late-round picks of the Seahawks in cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell. Those two additional selections helped elevate the Seahawks above all other NFL teams, and both were significant contributors to the Seahawks’ stretch run last year on their way to winning a Super Bowl. So it’s definitely easy to make an argument that draft status definitely has a direct correlation to on-field success in the case of the Seahawks recently.
But nonetheless, Bosher is a good enough player that he’s worth adding to the list to give the Falcons a grand total of two quality starters, meaning they can claim to be better than Oakland in terms of drafting.
Essentially, Bosher’s presence elevates the Falcons drafting over the course of 2011-12 to the level of the Jacksonville Jaguars. They two added a quality starting wide receiver: Cecil Shorts and a punter in Bryan Anger. The Jaguars of course fired the architect of those selections: general manager Gene Smith at the end of the 2012 season.
It is worth noting that of the 11 teams that acquired three or less quality starters between the 2011-12 drafts, nearly half (five) of those teams have hired new general managers over the past three years.
Here’s how the rest of the league stacked up, including any late-round gems:
|Team||Total||Rds 1-4||Late Rd|
Here are all 120 players and when they were selected that were considered to be quality starters in case you want to check my work:
|1||7||San Francisco||Aldon Smith||OLB||2011|
|1||7||Tampa Bay||Mark Barron||S||2012|
|1||11||Kansas City||Dontari Poe||DT||2012|
|1||14||St Louis||Robert Quinn||DE||2011|
|1||14||St Louis||Michael Brockers||DT||2012|
|1||16||NY Jets||Quinton Coples||OLB||2012|
|1||17||New England||Nate Solder||OT||2011|
|1||18||San Diego||Corey Liuget||DE||2011|
|1||19||NY Giants||Prince Amukamara||CB||2011|
|1||21||New England||Chandler Jones||DE||2012|
|1||24||New Orleans||Cameron Jordan||DE||2011|
|1||25||New England||Dont'a Hightower||ILB||2012|
|1||30||NY Jets||Muhammad Wilkerson||DE||2011|
|1||31||Tampa Bay||Doug Martin||RB||2012|
|2||36||San Francisco||Colin Kaepernick||QB||2011|
|2||39||St Louis||Janoris Jenkins||CB||2012|
|2||50||San Diego||Marcus Gilchrist||S||2011|
|2||55||Kansas City||Rodney Hudson||OC||2011|
|2||58||Tampa Bay||Lavonte David||OLB||2012|
|2||63||NY Giants||Rueben Randle||WR||2012|
|2||64||Green Bay||Randall Cobb||WR||2011|
|3||70||Kansas City||Justin Houston||OLB||2011|
|3||73||New England||Stevan Ridley||RB||2011|
|3||77||NY Jets||Demario Davis||ILB||2012|
|3||80||San Francisco||Chris Culliver||CB||2011|
|3||84||Tampa Bay||Mason Foster||ILB||2011|
|3||86||Kansas City||Allen Bailey||DE||2011|
|3||89||New Orleans||Akiem Hicks||DT||2012|
|4||110||San Diego||Ladarius Green||TE||2012|
|4||132||Green Bay||Mike Daniels||DE||2012|
|5||153||NY Jets||Jeremy Kerley||WR||2011|
|6||171||St Louis||Greg Zuerlein||K||2012|
|6||202||NY Giants||Jacquian Williams||OLB||2011|
|7||211||San Francisco||Bruce Miller||FB||2011|