Growing up just west of Atlanta, the “Dirty Birds” quickly became my favorite team across all sports.
I would spend my early adolescent years obsessing over players like Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Michael Turner, Sean Weatherspoon, Tony Gonzalez, John Abraham, Julio Jones, and countless others.
The phrase “Rise Up” became an unceasing constant in my vocabulary and my childhood friends would wonder if I had a life outside of the Falcons (hint: I didn’t).
It was never easy being a Falcons fan as I would tell myself time and time again “next year,” until it became an end of season routine to the date (we don’t even have to mention the results of Super Bowl LI).
With that aside, today, I will be counting down my top five Atlanta Falcons players of all time.
Note: This list is solely my own subjective opinion. Considerations for my picks stem from each player’s impact on the Atlanta Falcons franchise and the longevity of the player’s tenure.
- Roddy White (WR) (2005-2015)
“Rowdy Roddy” does not receive nearly enough credit for the impact he had on the Atlanta Falcons. Selected No. 27 in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft, White set the precedent for the standard and quality of the Falcons receiving core.
After a slow start for the young receiver, who was beginning to gain a rather distasteful reputation for being a trash-talking, party-hopping bust, Atlanta signed veteran four-time pro-bowler Joe Horn in March 2007.
During Horn’s short career in Atlanta, he served primarily as a mentor and role model for White, who was immediately beginning to change his narrative on the field.
In the 2007-’08 season, White had a breakout year as he received for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns.
After Matt Ryan (QB) was drafted by the Falcons in 2008, White quickly became his favorite receiver. In 2008, the fourth-year player was targeted 148 times and caught for 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns, enough to earn him his first Pro Bowl appearance.
White continued to dominate for the next four seasons, in which he consistently racked up over 1,000 receiving yards, reaching the Pro Bowl each year from 2009-’11.
But White’s impact on the franchise did not end there.
In 2012, when second-year star Julio Jones (WR) began to take the reins from White, the veteran receiver began to serve more as a mentor for the young receiver, just as Horn did for him.
“When I first got here, Roddy helped me out tremendously,” Jones said of his Atlanta teammate. “He gave me the blueprint of being a great receiver.”
After several more solid seasons for White, he was released by the Falcons in March 2016, ending his ten-year NFL career.
Overall, White received for a career 10,863 yards, 63 touchdowns and 808 receptions in his 171 games as an Atlanta Falcon. The four-time Pro Bowler remains one of the greatest wide receivers in franchise history and carved the path for future receivers like Jones to dominate the position.
- Michael Vick (QB) (2001-2006)
Perhaps the most electric player Atlanta sports has ever seen, Michael Vick was an absolute problem for NFL defenses during his five-year tenure in a Falcons uniform.
No matter the situation, the dual-threat quarterback could make it happen.
Drafted as the first pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, the former Virginia Tech Hokie quickly became the talk of Atlanta due to his immense athleticism, supersonic speed and flowing mobility.
In just his second season, Vick started all but one game for Atlanta where he threw for 2,936 yards with 16 touchdowns and rushed for 777 yards with eight touchdowns.
Leading the Falcons to an upset victory over the Green Bay Packers in the Wildcard round of the 2001-’02 NFC playoffs, the 22-year-old, regularly dubbed as “the Michael Jordan of the NFL,” became a superstar.
After suffering a fractured right fibula in preseason causing him to miss the majority of the 2002-’03 season, Vick continued to drop jaws across the NFL with his earth-shattering plays next season.
Prior to the start of 2003-’04 season, Vick became the first Falcon in franchise history selected as the cover of Madden NFL. Living up to the hype, Vick led Atlanta to the 2004 NFC Championship against Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Atlanta would not make the playoffs again with Vick under center, but he would reach his third career Pro Bowl after the 2005 season, in which he racked up 2,412 passing yards with 15 touchdowns and rushed for 697 yards with six touchdowns.
In Vick’s final year with Atlanta, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards, in which he generated 1,039 on top of his 2,474 passing yards.
Vick was suspended indefinitely from the NFL in August 2007 after pleading guilty to his involvement in a, now infamous, dog fighting ring.
After serving nearly two years in federal prison, Vick would return to the NFL but never again in a Falcons uniform.
Love him or hate him, Michael Vick was a phenom on the gridiron for the Atlanta Falcons as he was named to three Pro Bowls, led his team to two playoff runs, a division title and an NFC Championship appearance in his five seasons.
- Julio Jones (WR) (2011-2020)
Nicknamed “Waffle House” in high school because he was always open, Julio Jones was a class-act both on and off the field.
The Alabama-native quickly became an opposing threat to even the most elite NFL cornerbacks right off the bat as an Atlanta Falcon.
In 2011, as a rookie, Jones impressively received for just shy of 1,000 yards and scored eight touchdowns while taking notes from veteran teammate and fellow receiver Roddy White, who, at the time, was Atlanta’s No. 1 receiver.
During his second season, Jones completely shifted gears and received for an outstanding 1,198 yards, 10 touchdowns and 79 receptions, earning his first career Pro Bowl appearance.
After an unprecedented injury caused him to miss most of the 2013-’14 season, Jones picked up right where he left off in 2014 as he caught for 1,593 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
From there, Jones would only become more dominant as he led the NFL in receiving yards and co-led the league in receptions in 2015, with 1,871 and 136 respectively.
To this day, Jones’s 2015 receiving yard statistics ranks the third highest in a single season in NFL history, behind only Calvin Johnson (2012) and Cooper Kupp (2021).
In each of the next four seasons, Jones received for over 1,300 yards and consistently reached the Pro Bowl.
During his final Atlanta season, in 2020, Jones suffered an agonizing hamstring injury in week four against the Green Bay Packers, resulting in less playing time.
As he battled injury, Jones took on a role much like his predecessor Roddy White did as he looked to coach and mentor Atlanta’s younger receivers such as Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus.
Jones was later traded to the Tennessee Titans after the 2020-21 season came to a close, but he could never be forgotten for the impact he had on the Atlanta Falcons franchise.
Overall for the Falcons, Jones had 848 receptions, 12,896 yards and 60 touchdowns and he is undoubtedly the greatest receiver to ever wear the red and black uniform. Not only that, Jones is a seven-time Pro Bowler who always found a way to come up clutch in some of the biggest games in franchise history.
- Deion Sanders (DB, KR, PR) (1989-1993)
“Neon Deion” was “Prime Time” for the Atlanta Falcons in the early 90s.
On the field, he was exceptional. Off the field, he helped establish a smooth and swaggy culture for the Falcons, heavily influenced by hip hop music of the time.
The moment Sanders stepped foot on the gridiron, the “Dirty Birds” were truly “2 Legit 2 Quit.”
The flashy, chain-wearing and, frankly, arrogant son of a gun who referred to himself as “Prime Time” was not just talk, however, but one of the most remarkable athletes to ever put on the Atlanta uniform.
Drafted in 1989, the former Florida State Seminole quickly made Atlanta his home.
As a cornerback and returner, Sanders had five interceptions and one punt return for a touchdown during his rookie year.
After a disappointing season in which the Falcons went 3-13, Atlanta hired Jerry Glanville as head coach in 1990.
With his mind set on bringing a winning culture to the team, Glanville allowed his players like Sanders to remain loose and confident both on and off the field.
And in 1991, Glanville had begun to see the success he had sought.
With sideline appearances from celebrities like MC Hammer, Evander Holyfield, James Brown and Travis Tritt, Sanders recorded six interceptions, one kick return for a touchdown, one defensive touchdown and one sack in ‘91 as the “rudest team” went 10-6 on the year.
But the season was not over as Atlanta then toppled division rivals, the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Wildcard playoffs.
“Having all of those celebrities on the sideline really challenged the players,” Sanders said, according to NFLCommunications.com. “Everybody wanted to have a small part in what we were accomplishing because of the fashion that we did it in.”
After the 1991 season, Sanders would play two more Pro Bowl seasons in Atlanta, where he would come away with nine additional interceptions and four total touchdowns.
While his career in Atlanta was rather short lived, Sanders played a huge role in creating one of the most unapologetically arrogant and exciting teams in NFL history. Sanders, in the early 90s, was the city of Atlanta and everything it represented.
“It was the right team at the right time in the right town,” MC Hammer said, according to NFLCommunications.com.
- Matt Ryan (QB) (2008-2021)
When looking at what “Matty Ice” accomplished as an Atlanta Falcon, there is nobody more deserving of the first place spot.
Drafted in 2008, Ryan immediately set the tone for his career as his first NFL pass resulted in a touchdown to Michael Jenkins (WR) in week one against the Detroit Lions.
From there, the rookie quarterback from Boston College did not slow as he would then throw for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns and record an impressive 61.1% completion rate on the season all while leading his team to the NFC Wildcard playoffs against the Arizona Cardinals.
As he won the NFL AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, Ryan checked off all the boxes to be the next franchise quarterback the Falcons so desperately needed after the demise of Michael Vick’s career in Atlanta.
The sharp and precise pocket passer continued to make his mark on the NFL as he threw for 22 touchdowns and 2,916 yards during the 2009-’10 season.
But success really started rolling for Ryan in the next year.
In 2010, Ryan led Atlanta to a division title as the team finished the regular season with a 13-3 record. That year, the third-year quarterback threw for 3,705 yards, 28 touchdowns and generated a 62.5% completion rate to earn his way into the Pro Bowl.
After the 2010-’11 season came to a close, Ryan went on a tear as he would never throw for under 4,000 yards in a single season again until 2021-22, a season in which he was just 32 yards shy.
The 2011-’12 season also saw a historical moment for the Atlanta Falcons – the first time in franchise history the team reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
After falling short to the New York Giants, however, the Falcons had their eyes set on next season.
And leading the charge during the 2012-’13 season was none other than Ryan, who had the highest completion rate at 68.6% among all quarterbacks in the NFL. That season, the Falcons won their division and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
From there, Ryan led Atlanta to its first playoff victory since 2004 as the team squeaked past the Seattle Seahawks and advanced to the NFC Championship.
After the San Francisco 49ers defeated Atlanta to advance to Super Bowl XLVII, the Falcons would miss the playoffs in each of the next three seasons.
But in 2016, Ryan and the Atlanta offense were back to make a splash on the NFL. That season, Ryan had historic numbers.
The thirty-one year old threw for a career high 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and had an incredible 69.9% completion rate to earn the first NFL AP Most Valuable Player Award by a Falcons player in NFL history.
Also, in that season, Ryan led the Falcons to two dominant playoff victories to reach Super Bowl LI, where they would eventually fall to the New England Patriots.
Ryan and the Falcons would make a playoff run again in the 2017-’18 season as they defeated the Los Angeles Rams in the Wildcard round, but lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional round.
From there, Ryan remained consistent in his next four Atlanta seasons, but the team lacked ability to make it back to the playoffs.
After a phenomenal 13-year career as an Atlanta Falcon, Ryan was traded to the Indianapolis Colts on March 21, 2022.
Hands down, Ryan is the most successful and impactful player to ever strap up for the Atlanta Falcons. From NFL Rookie of the Year, to MVP, to 10-straight 4,000+ yard seasons, Ryan’s legacy in Atlanta will be one that is forever cherished among die hard Falcons fans everywhere.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Kenn, Tommy Nobis, Jamal Anderson, Matt Bryant, Jeff Van Note, Andre Rison, Morten Andersen, Jessie Tuggle, Tony Gonzalez.