Atlanta class of 2008 at career crossroads

QB Matt Ryan is far from a bust, but one has to wonder if he can lead Atlanta to playoff success. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There’s an old saying in NFL circles that you should never judge a draft class until two or three years down the road.

Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff might want to borrow a ploy from the New Orleans Saints and get some special arbitrator to convert that saying into law. Heck, in the case of Atlanta’s 2008 draft class, Dimitroff might be better off with keeping the statute of limitations on judging results to just one year.

As Atlanta’s class of 2008 gets ready for its fifth season, there’s still hope for greatness, but this class isn’t looking quite as good as it did a couple years ago. And it certainly isn’t looking as brilliant as it did in 2008, when some rookie from Dimitroff’s first draft class seemed to step up and make a big play every week.

Quarterback Matt Ryan and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton were stars from Day One and Sam Baker looked like he might be the guy to protect Ryan’s blindside for a decade. That wasn’t a total shock because Ryan and Baker came in the first round and Lofton in the second. What was shocking in those days as the Falcons recovered faster than anyone expected from the Bobby Petrino era was the production from the rest of the draft class.

The Falcons had three third-round picks -- cornerback Chevis Jackson, receiver Harry Douglas and safety Thomas DeCoud. At various times, each of them made key plays and showed all sorts of promise for the future. Even fifth-round draft pick Kroy Biermann got involved.

With the rookie class playing a big role and guys like Roddy White, Michael Turner and John Abraham providing veteran leadership, the Falcons stunned everyone by going 10-6 and making the playoffs in coach Mike Smith's first season. Dimitroff was named Executive of the Year by The Sporting News, called a genius by many (including myself) and the common assumption was that Atlanta’s Class of 2008 had a chance to go down as one of the best in NFL history.

In the years that immediately followed that class continued to look like it could be an all-time classic.

But, five years into the process, this class suddenly looks like one big question mark. It’s far from a disaster, but it’s far from great. Gee, that’s kind of become the unofficial motto for the Falcons the last couple of years.

That’s no coincidence because the fate of Dimitroff’s first rookie class is tied directly to the Falcons’ fate. With Atlanta facing a crucial season, the class of 2008 is at a career crossroads. If this group finally steps all the way up, the Falcons can win a playoff game for the first time in the tenure of Dimitroff and Smith. If it disappoints or stays status quo, the Falcons again can be just another pretty good team. But that may no longer be good enough.

If the Falcons don’t get a playoff win this season, Smith and Dimitroff move closer to the hot seat. But the class of 2008 already is there. Lofton and Jackson already are gone. The Falcons wanted to keep Lofton, but not at the price tag he wanted at the start of free agency. He settled for a deal with the rival Saints. Jackson’s luster wore off much more quickly. He was gone from the Falcons by 2010 and is trying to earn a roster spot with the Carolina Panthers.

But Ryan, Baker, Douglas, DeCoud and Biermann remain with the Falcons and each of them is facing the biggest season of his career. Let’s start with Ryan.

Nobody’s ready to declare the quarterback a bust. In fact, he’s coming off his best statistical season. But Ryan’s development seems to have paused after his thunderous entrance into the NFL. Some of that can be blamed on his supporting cast and maybe even his coaching. But the Falcons have invested a lot into improving the talent at the other skill positions and have brought in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

If Ryan doesn’t take the step from good to great and doesn’t win a playoff game, questions will start flying about whether he’s the guy for the long term. Those questions are especially relative these days because Ryan’s rookie contract ends after the 2013 season. If he doesn’t progress, he might not get a new deal. If he does, a huge extension is sure to follow.

There are lots of people out there that already have declared Baker a bust. His inability to stop the pass rush might be one reason why Ryan has been unable to develop the deep passing game the Falcons want. Baker ended up losing his starting job to journeyman Will Svitek last season. But Baker still is around and it sounds like the Falcons are going to give him one final chance to show he can be a quality left tackle.

The Falcons have made a lot of noise about how they still believe in Baker and have pointed to injury problems as reasons why he has struggled. But Baker’s heading into the last year of his contract. Unless Baker beats out Svitek and plays better than ever, it’s hard to imagine the Falcons giving him another contract.

The Falcons already gave Douglas a new four-year, $12.5 million contract in March. The Falcons aren’t asking Douglas to be a superstar because they already have White and Julio Jones as their starting receivers. But Douglas is the one member of the 2008 class that might be the furthest from having realized his full potential. There were a few glimpses in 2008, but Douglas missed 2009 with an injury. The Falcons have wanted to use him as their slot receiver the past few years and that’s still the plan.

But Douglas never has been truly explosive in that role. Part of that is because injuries to others have forced him to play outside at times. When he has been in the slot, Douglas hasn’t been much of a deep threat. Blame that on the offensive line if you want, but the fact is Douglas has only three receiving touchdowns in his career.

There’s really no reason Douglas shouldn’t have more than three touchdown catches in a season, if he’s truly allowed to work out of the slot and the offensive line is protecting Ryan.

The Falcons also committed to DeCoud in March, giving him a five-year, $17.5 million deal. Although DeCoud has started 47 of 48 games the past three seasons, he’s not much different than the rest of his classmates. He’s been good at times, ordinary at others. But DeCoud is coming off a season in which he had a career-high four interceptions. If he can add a few more to that total, DeCoud starts entering Pro Bowl conversations and gets a shot at full validation.

Biermann, who got a three-year contract worth $9.15 million in March, is in pretty much the same territory as Douglas and DeCoud -- decent, but several steps from great. There’s a reason why the Falcons kept Biermann around. They feel he still has some upside as a pass-rusher. But there’s some evidence suggesting Biermann might have hit his peak in 2009 when he had five sacks. He had just 2.5 last season and three in 2010. Abraham is aging and Ray Edwards didn’t do much last year. The Falcons have to hope they can generate some pass rush from somewhere else and Biermann remains the best hope.

It’s really the same story for Ryan, Baker, Douglas, DeCoud and Biermann. The most important grade on the class of 2008 will come in 2012.