Atlanta's Class of 2008 can be great

Matt Ryan quieted his critics after winning a playoff game, but there's still more left to accomplish. AP Photo/Dave Martin

It’s time for the Atlanta Falcons' Class of 2008 to move on past graduate school and get the most advanced of degrees.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a column about how the members of that draft class were headed for a crucial season that could define them individually and collectively. They passed the test with flying colors, winning a playoff game for the first time and coming within 10 yards of a Super Bowl appearance.

This draft class now seems destined to be one of the best in NFC South history. Let’s check in on Atlanta’s Class of 2008 to see where its members are and where they might be going.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is the face of this class. He was selected with the third pick overall, and he was good right from the start. Ryan was calm and poised as a rookie and did lots of nice things in the following years.

But entering last season, Ryan’s career had hit a bit of a lull. The critics who said that Ryan couldn’t win the big one were getting louder. That theory was supported by the fact Ryan never had won a playoff game, despite leading the Falcons to winning records in each of his first four seasons.

So Ryan went out and set career highs in passing yards (4,719), completion percentage (68.6) and touchdown passes (32) as the Falcons cruised to a 13-3 season in 2012. Then he got the biggest win of his career, leading the Falcons to a playoff victory against Seattle.

If you didn’t think Ryan was paying attention to the talk about his previous playoff frustrations, his uncharacteristic emotional reaction at the end of the Seattle game told you something about the quarterback’s intensity.

I was stunned as I stood in the tunnel near the Falcons’ locker room that day and saw and heard Ryan running off the field repeatedly pumping his fist. I was even more stunned as Ryan, who normally is very soft-spoken, got closer and I could hear him repeatedly yelling in happiness.

The joy ended a week later with a close loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. That brought back some of the critics, but I see nothing but a bright future for Ryan. The victory against Seattle took a lot of weight off his shoulders. He’s likely to get a contract extension later this offseason, and I expect his next five years to be even better than his first five.

“It takes so much more than just Matt Ryan to finish plays, especially down the stretch," Atlanta receiver Roddy White said in a "First Take" interview Wednesday. "You can’t just put it on the quarterback and say, 'You have to make this one play to get over the hump.' It has to be me. It has to be Julio [Jones]. It has to be Tony [Gonzalez]. We have to go out there and make those plays to make it easier on Matt Ryan."

White’s right. But it’s not just White, Jones and Gonzalez who have to help Ryan take the next step. He needs help from the guys from his own draft class, and they all seem to be on the upswing.

Take left tackle Sam Baker, who also was chosen in the first round in 2008. Through much of his first four years, Baker dealt with injuries and was maligned by fans for his inconsistent play. In 2011, he lost his starting job.

But the Falcons stood by Baker. He got healthy and turned in a stellar 2012 season that earned him a new contract. Some people might say it was a one-season wonder, but I think Baker can play like that every year if he stays healthy.

Then there’s wide receiver Harry Douglas, a third-round pick in 2008. He’s carved a nice niche as Atlanta’s slot receiver and could deliver even more big plays in the future with defenses focused on White, Gonzalez and Jones. But Douglas wasn’t even the gem of the third round for the Falcons.

That turned out to be safety Thomas DeCoud. He made the Pro Bowl last season, and he and William Moore are starting to get recognition as one of the league’s best safety tandems.

And let’s not forget defensive end Kroy Biermann, a fifth-round pick in 2008. Biermann once was best known for being married to one of the stars of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." But he made his presence felt on the field last season.

Biermann beat out free-agent bust Ray Edwards, produced four sacks, showed the ability to drop into zone coverage and had a big impact on special teams.

We also have to mention linebacker Curtis Lofton, a second-round pick in 2008. He gave the Falcons four very nice years before bolting to New Orleans as a free agent last offseason.

The Class of 2008 validated itself last season. But there’s still a little more this class can do.

The unquestioned best draft class in NFC South history came in 1995, when Tampa Bay landed Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. They helped turn around a downtrodden franchise and led the Bucs to a Super Bowl championship in the 2002 season.

Sapp will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, and Brooks almost certainly will follow him next year. In hindsight, that was a magical draft for Tampa Bay.

But maybe Atlanta’s Class of 2008 will be viewed in a similar manner someday. When Ryan and company arrived in Atlanta, the Falcons were coming off the Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick fiascos. The class quickly helped turn a franchise around.

The next step is to win a Super Bowl, maybe even more than one. If the Falcons can do that, their Class of 2008 has a chance to enter the argument with Sapp and Brooks as the best in NFC South history.