Draft busts like Aundray Bruce, Joe Profit and Bruce Pickens remain a stain on the NFL Draft history of the Atlanta Falcons. However, although the Dirty Birds have their fair share of poor draft choices, the franchise has also been able to find exceptional talent outside the draft’s early picks.
Some of the best players in team history have flown under the radar as prospects and have turned that doubt into spectacular careers.
5. Devonta Freeman
Although Freeman’s Falcons career only lasted six seasons and certainly had its ups and downs, you can’t deny that the value he offered the team was much higher than his draft position indicated.
Despite being a star at Florida State, Freeman slipped to the fourth round (103rd overall) back in 2014. After an injury to incumbent starter Tevin Coleman, Freeman burst onto the scene as a rookie.
Freeman made two-straight Pro Bowls in 2015 and 2016 and recorded over 1,500 total yards and 13 touchdowns in both seasons.
4. Elbert Shelley
Shelley never made a single start at the safety position in his entire 10-year NFL career, so why is he on this list? Well, for one, nearly 300 picks passed in the 1987 draft before Shelley was selected in the 11th round. Secondly, while Shelley wasn’t a starter on defense, the former Arkansas State product was an ace on special teams.
Shelley’s impact on special teams is what had him named to four-straight Pro Bowls between 1992 and 1995.
3. Roddy White
Arguably the best Falcons receiver not named Julio Jones, White was actually a first-round pick in 2005 out of UAB. However, the 6-foot, 211-pound pass-catcher fell all the way to pick No. 27 and was the sixth receiver drafted that year.
White broke onto the scene in his third season and after that,was a model of consistency for the next six or so seasons. White recorded at least 1,153 yards and six touchdowns in six-straight seasons. White was named to the First-Team All-Pro in 2010 when he lead the NFL with 115 receptions and made four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.
2. William Andrews
Andrews didn’t particularly stand out in college as he was a part of a crowded Auburn backfield that featured James Brooks and Joe Cribbs. That is why Andrews wasn’t selected until pick No. 79 in the 1979 draft.
However, Williams quickly became a star in Atlanta as he reached the 1,000-ard mark as a rookie. After his rookie year, the bruising fullback would be named to four-straight Pro Bowls and in 1981, he led the league with 2,036 yards from scrimmage along with 12 touchdowns.
A devastating knee injury cut Andrews’ career short and he retired in 1986.
1. Jeff Van Note
10 rounds came and went before the Falcons took a chance on a 6-foot-2, 247-pound prospect out of the University of Kentucky with the 262nd overall pick. Younger fans may not know much about Van Note seeing as he was drafted all the way back in 1969 but regardless, the six-time Pro Bowler is the biggest draft steal in Atlanta history.
Van Note actually played defensive end and running back in college and was actually drafted by the Falcons as a linebacker but the quickly moved to center. Not only was van Note a perennial Pro Bowler, but he also played 18 seasons in the league — all with the Falcons and has his No. 57 retired by the team.