FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Fresh off their bye week, the Falcons had an encouraging participation rate at Monday's practice, according to coach Dan Quinn. With a lengthy injury report heading into their week off, Quinn said only one player sat out the Falcons' first practice after the bye, which is good news for the defending NFC champs.
Today's Early Bird covers the emerging competition within the NFC South as well as a pair of notable announcements from the Dolphins and Buccaneers.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
ESPN.com: Falcons need to be fully aware of Panthers, NFC South
Entering the 2017 season, the NFC South was viewed as possibly the toughest division in the NFL. A slow start by the Saints and some lackluster wins by the Panthers caused that talk to die down a bit, but it appears now that the division is living up to its preseason hype. Carolina, which is atop the NFC South with a 4-1 record, appears to be Atlanta's primary competition.
ESPN's Vaughn McClure asked several Falcons players about their competition within the division, but they remain focused on taking it week by week.
"Of course, we want to win the NFC South," Jake Matthews told McClure. "That's the goal. But, obviously, we've got teams we've got to play before then. We're not going to go into the Miami game thinking about when we're playing Carolina or New Orleans. We've got to take care of each team that comes our way each week."
ESPN.com: Ranking all 32 NFL backfield duos from best to worst
The Falcons' backfield combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is often mentioned among the best in professional football. According to ESPN's Field Yates, they are right at the top of the list. In a recent ranking of ever NFL team's backfield duo, Yates had Freeman and Coleman No. 1.
"While many backfields feature players who can adeptly handle more specific roles, Freeman and Coleman are a rare one-two punch that can each play in any offensive situation," Yates wrote. "They're excellent pass-catchers and solid runners between the tackles, and each is effective in the red area. Together they account for 42.8 percent of the offense's yards from scrimmage. Freeman, who has rushed for a league-leading five touchdowns this season, is among the game's best."
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Miami Dolphins
Miami Herald: Dolphins offensive line coach resigns after powder-snorting video surfaces
Miami Dolphins offensive line coach Chris Foerster resigned Monday after a video came to light that showed him snorting a white powder, according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald*. *The video is believed to have been taken at his desk at the team's facility, and Foerster agreed to resign rather than be fired, per Salguero. He released the following statement via the team on Monday:
"I am resigning from my position with the Miami Dolphins and accept full responsibility for my actions. I want to apologize to the organization and my sole focus is on getting the help that I need with the support of my family and medical professionals."
Miami Herald: Dolphins' ailing offense last in seven categories; solutions elusive
Although the Dolphins' defense has been a surprise strength so far this season, the offense is among the very worst in the NFL. As the *Miami Herald's *Barry Jackson writes, there aren't many answers for the Dolphins at this point.
Miami has scored just 34 points on offense through four games and are dead last in seven major categories, including: points per game, yards per game and third down efficiency. Calls for the benching of quarterback Jay Cutler have grown louder with each passing week, but head coach Adam Gase has consistently indicated that won't happen.
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
The Ringer: The Panthers are beginning to look like real contenders again
What a difference a couple of weeks can make. Through the first three games of the season, the Panthers appeared out of sorts and struggling to gain any type of momentum. After back-to-back wins over the Patriots and Lions, however, the Panthers have seemingly regained their confidence. According to The Ringer's Danny Kelly, this bunch is beginning to look like the 2015 group that made it all the way to the Super Bowl.
"But five weeks into the season, Carolina's shown some flashes of its former class-of-the-NFC, Super Bowl–contender self: Kuechly and the defense have been disciplined; the pass rush has come alive behind free-agent addition Julius Peppers; a handful of playmakers such as Christian McCaffrey, Kelvin Benjamin, and Devin Funchess have stepped up on offense; and, most importantly, Newton resembles his 2015 self," Kelly writes. "After beating the Lions in Detroit 27-24 on Sunday in a game that never felt as close as the final score indicated, the Panthers look like they're quietly back to being one of the toughest, most balanced teams in NFL again."
Sports Illustrated: Buccaneers sign their third kicker of 2017
Following an 0-for-3 performance by Nick Folk in Tampa Bay's Thursday night loss to the New England Patriots, the Buccaneers have signed kicker Patrick Murray. Murray was signed to a futures contract by Tampa Bay in 2014 and played for the Cleveland Browns in 2016 and for the New Orleans Saints this preseason. Murray will be the Buccaneers' third kicker this season after both Roberto Aguayo and Folk failed to pan out.
"It's unfortunate because when Nick won the job in training camp and he's been really solid in practice, the thing that happened last week kind of came out of left field," Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said, according to SI's Nihal Kolur. "There was no real indication that was coming. We only kicked live in practice one day this week and Nick was lights out."
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