The NFL draft provides teams and their fans with numerous questions on why some excellent college football players don’t translate to success at the NFL level. Over the past five years, the Atlanta Falcons have given up so many draft picks, all in the name of adding an elite NFL receiver in Julio Jones.
But what if the Falcons had gone about the draft differently in 2010 and taken a chance on another elite NFL receiver, Dez Bryant, instead of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon? It is a decision that could have changed two NFL franchises for years to come.
Following the 2009 season, which saw the Falcons finish with a 9-7 record, Atlanta needed a better option at wide receiver than Michael Jenkins even though they had Roddy White. While White had 85 receptions for 1,153 receiving yards and 11 touchdown catches, Jenkins only had 50 receptions for 635 yards and one touchdown in 2009.
The second aspect of this is that the Falcons decided to take LB Sean Weatherspoon with the No. 19 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, instead of adding WR Dez Bryant who was drafted No. 24 by the Dallas Cowboys.
Weatherspoon has been a disappointment in the NFL, and his four seasons in Atlanta (2010-14) only produced 290 combined tackles, 8.0 sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. During that same span, Bryant had 381 receptions, 5,424 receiving yards and 56 touchdowns. Bryant also had two punt return touchdowns during his rookie season.
Even though Weatherspoon was selected in 2010, the Falcons were able to finish the 2010 season with a 13-3 record but ultimately lost to the Green Bay Packers 48-21 in the NFC Divisional Round. Would a wideout duo of Bryant and White have helped them possibly make it to the Super Bowl that season? We will never know, but it would have still been an upgrade over Jenkins.
The next aspect of this “what if” is Julio Jones being selected as the No. 6 pick in 2011 by Atlanta. It was a costly pick for the Falcons, as they gave up five draft picks to move from the No. 27 slot up to No. 6, and selecting Bryant the previous year would have left them with those five draft picks.
The draft picks that Atlanta traded to the Cleveland Browns in the 2011 draft are as follows:
2011: First-round pick (No. 27), second-round pick (No. 59) and fourth-round pick (No. 124)
2012: First-round pick (No. 22) and fourth-round pick (No. 118)
It was a costly trade that left the Falcons without five picks in two drafts, and left them with no first-round pick in 2012. Had they selected Bryant in 2010, they could have used those five picks to bolster their defense and add depth to both their offensive line and defensive line.
The impact of their decision to trade for Jones in 2011 did not catch up to them immediately — made the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 — they are feeling them now. In 2013, Atlanta finished with a 4-12 record, and 6-10 and 8-8 finish the past two seasons. The franchise is finding out how costly that decision in 2011 was, and there is a chance that the real decline hasn’t fully come to fruition at this point.
Looking back at the 2010 draft, and with Bryant already being selected by the Falcons, the Cowboys could have gone a number of ways with the No. 24 pick. Cornerback Devin McCourty (Rutgers) was available and selected by the New England Patriots (No. 27), defensive end Jerry Hughes (No. 31), safety T.J. Ward (No. 38) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (No. 42), all of whom would have fit with the Cowboys. Gronkowski might have made the least amount of sense because they already had Jason Witten at the position.
Dallas ended the 2009 season with an 11-5 record but were blown out by the Minnesota Vikings 34-3 in the NFC Divisional Round after their Wild-Card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. They could have ended up selecting Jones in 2011 but he may not have been available for the Cowboys to draft with the No. 9 pick. With Jones already selected by the Falcons, the Cowboys selected tackle Tyron Smith, but without Bryant, they might have traded up or taken Jones at with the ninth pick in 2011.
The Cowboys switched coaches in the middle of the 2010 season following a 1-7 start with Wade Phillips at the helm, and Jason Garrett was named the new head coach in Dallas. The team finished 2010 with a 6-10 record and finished with an 8-8 record from 2011-13. In 2014, they played to a 12-4 record before losing to the Packers in the divisional round after a controversial call on a possible Bryant catch. This past season left them struggling with injuries to quarterback Tony Romo and Bryant, and a 4-12 season appears to be the result for years to come if major offensive weapons are lost for a lengthy period.
The ripple effect that Bryant being selected by the Falcons in 2010 would have had might have changed the outcome of several teams besides Dallas and Atlanta, and likely would have spared Mike Smith his coaching job in Atlanta. But it also could have cost Garrett his in Dallas.
If Atlanta had gone about things differently in 2010 and 2011, there is no guarantee that the players they could have selected with the five draft picks they traded away would have amounted to anything. On the other hand, they would still have an elite receiver in Bryant and five picks that could have kept them on the rise instead of in a place of despair.