Today's Early Bird Report includes several bold predictions for the Falcons' 2019 season as well as Atlanta's camp MVP.
With only two preseason games remaining for Atlanta, the 2019 season is practically here. Fans and media members have begun to get an idea of how the Falcons are shaping up for the fall, which gives somewhat of a basis for bold predictions.
CBS Sports' Dan Schneler isn't dipping his toe into the bold prediction pool; he's diving in head first. I'm not going to reveal all of Schneler's predictions for Atlanta this season, but you can click here if you'd like to see them.
His first two predictions involve an offense that he believes will make the jump from good to elite in 2019. Schneler thinks Matt Ryan will once again reach the 4,000-yard mark, continuing the longest such streak in the NFL, and will top 5,000 yards for the first time in his career. The second prediction Schneler makes is that Devonta Freeman's return this season will vault Atlanta's offense into the top five.
"Freeman's running style is hard to find a comparison for," Schneler writes. "He runs violently to the point where it may be one factor in how many games he has missed over the course of his career. However, his violent running style is also what makes him so special when he's on the field. Freeman's ability to maneuver in and out of holes is exactly what Atlanta could draw up for the position to fit their offensive system's blocking scheme. It's why they re-signed him to lucrative multi-year contract prior to when his rookie deal ran out."
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
ESPN: Training camp MVPs for all 32 NFL teams
The most exciting preseason competition for the Falcons has been at the running back spot, and that's largely been due to the emergence of Brian Hill. The former fifth-round running back has made the most of his second opportunity with the Falcons, pushing his backfield teammates every chance he's gotten.
Hill is the Falcons' leading rusher this preseason, gaining 92 yards and scoring one touchdown on 23 carries. He's also caught one touchdown pass and drawn positive reviews from the coaching staff about the improvements he's made to that aspect of his game.
For what he's done this preseason, Hill was named the Falcons' camp MVP by ESPN's Vaughn McClure.
"He's trying to win time in the backfield behind Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith," McClure writes. "Hill is a bigger back and is also competing with rookie Qadree Ollison for a role. Coach Dan Quinn has been impressed with how Hill has improved catching. We'll see if it's enough to earn a spot on the 53."
Hill's next opportunity to leave an impression during an actual game will come on Thursday night when the Falcons welcome the Washington Redskins to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
NFL.com: Revisiting draft grades for 2016 first-rounders
A few eyebrows were raised when the Falcons selected Keanu Neal with the 17th-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The former Florida safety was pegged by several as a second-round talent, but Neal and the Falcons have proved those doubters wrong in the three years since. Neal has become one of the faces of Atlanta's defense, earning a Pro Bowl invitation after the 2017 season. In revising the draft grades for the 2016 NFL Draft, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein gave the Falcons a B+, a grade that would have been higher if not for something neither the team nor Neal could control.
"The only thing keeping the Falcons and Neal from earning an A here is the unfortunate ACL tear he suffered in Week 1 last season," Zierlein writes. "Neal has rare size and strength for the safety spot. He showed off his physicality and alpha demeanor over his first two years, making the Pro Bowl in 2017 with 116 tackles and three forced fumbles, respectively. He's back this year, so look out!"
To see the rest of Zierlein's revised draft grades, click here.
Takeaways from the Falcons' third preseason game
The Falcons dropped their third preseason game on Thursday night, losing to the New York Jets 22-10. Atlanta's starters and second-team players built a 10-6 lead heading into halftime, but the Falcons were unable to maintain that lead.
The final score wasn't the primary takeaway from the game, however. For ESPN's Vaughn McClure and NFL.com's Jeremy Bergman, it was Atlanta's offensive line that captured their attention.
"There has to be concern about the offensive line during Matt Ryan's first appearance this preseason," McClure writes. "Ryan was sacked three times and threw under duress too much while completing 10 of 14 passes for 118 yards. Ryan absorbed some good hits, something you never want to see in the preseason."
To read more of what McClure had to say, click here.
"Atlanta invested in the offensive line this offseason but the offensive line was not invested in protecting Matt Ryan on Thursday night," Bergman writes. "Ryan played four drives with the first-ish-team line and, while he was efficient in completing 10 of 14 passes, the Falcons starting quarterback also took three sacks and eight QB hits. Ty Sambrailo, the starting right tackle with Kaleb McGary out, was oft victimized. When he wasn't getting smacked around deep into the second quarter, Ryan was seeing his second-string pass-catchers (Brian Hill, Justin Hardy) drop easy TD passes in the end zone."
To read more of Bergman's takeaways, click here.
NFL.com: Each NFL team's offensive engine
EBR has been heavy on Julio Jones recently, but that's only because he's such dominant player that national outlets gravitate towards writing about him. That has again turned out to be the case.
In a recent piece highlighting which player is the "engine" for each NFL offense, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks provided a great explanation for why Jones is such a valuable player.
"When I recently spoke to an NFL defensive coordinator about Jones and his playmaking skills, he described the veteran pass catcher as "special" talent and told me that you can't really cover him with a single defender," Brooks writes. "In addition, the defensive coordinator stressed that Julio tilts the coverage and creates opportunities for Atlanta's other skill players to have room to operate on the perimeter. From Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu feasting off single coverage on the outside to Devonta Freeman seeing fewer "plus-one" defensive fronts, the presence of No. 11 makes life easier for everyone in a Falcons uniform."
Yes, there are other receivers in the league who command extra attention, but perhaps nobody warps a defense in the way that Jones does. He simply cannot be left alone with a single player, which is a massive benefit to the rest of Atlanta's offense.
To see which other players are their team's offensive engines, click here.
NFL.com: Ranking the best offenses heading into 2019
Few teams in the league boast as daunting a set of skill players as the Falcons. Headlined by Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, Atlanta has elite talent and plenty of depth at receiver, running back and tight end. Oh, and they also have former NFL MVP Matt Ryan getting them the ball.
NFL.com columnist Adam Schein seems to be very high on what this offense can accomplish in the upcoming season, and he ranks them as the top unit in the league heading into 2019.
"Is there a better receiving trio in the NFL today than Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu? Jones just became the first player in NFL history to log five straight seasons of 1,400-plus receiving yards, while Ridley scored 10 touchdowns in his rookie campaign," Schein writes. "Sanu's the jack of all trades, an ideal WR3 who can get the tough yards, make the crucial block -- and even throw the key pass. Devonta Freeman, the highly paid running back who's missed 16 games over the past two seasons, is healthy again, having participated in the entire offseason program. This is no small thing: In his last two healthy campaigns of 2015 and '16, Freeman averaged 1,068 rushing yards, 64 catches and 14 total touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl in each season. Lastly, 24-year-old tight end Austin Hooper is fresh off his first Pro Bowl season."
There will likely be some fans of other teams who take umbrage with the Falcons earning the top spot, and they probably could make a pretty good case. But if Atlanta's offense plays up to its potential this season, it will justify this No. 1 ranking.
To see the rest of Schein's list, click here.
NFL.com: Julio ranked No. 9 in top 100 players
After leading the NFL in receiving yards last season, Julio Jones remains among the very best players in the league. Set to pass Roddy White as the Falcons' all-time leading receiver in 2019, Jones' reputation as a top wide receiver has spread far beyond Atlanta.
Jones was ranked No. 9 in the NFL Network's "The Top 100 Players of 2019," which aired on Wednesday evening. Jones was the second-highest wide receiver on the list, coming in two spots behind Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.
"His consistency and his explosiveness and his just play strength I think is what separates him," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said on the television program. "They don't make guys like him that are that big, that strong, that fast. And that's what makes a guy like him fun to play against."
Entering the 2018 season, Jones earned the No. 4 sport on the NFL Network's ranking. This year, Jones' ninth in the league, the Falcons' offense is expected to again be among the best in the league. And with players like Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan, who was No. 69 in the same top 100 ranking, it's easy to see why.
ESPN: Picking top bounce-back candidates
Desmond Trufant's 2018 season was a showcase in resiliency. After struggling early on in the year with dropped interceptions and poor coverage, Trufant seemed to rebound during the second half of the season and end the year playing with his typical confidence.
Pro Football Focus gave Trufant and overall grade of 69.5 for his performance in 2018, which is their lowest grade for him to this point in his career. That makes Trufant a pretty solid bounce-back candidate for Atlanta in 2019, and ESPN's Vaughn McClure chose him as such in a recent article.
"The Falcons' defense wasn't the same as a whole last season after injuries crippled the unit," McClure writes. Trufant had some lapses -- most notably dropped potential interceptions -- but he's a player who has a swagger about him and needs to keep such confidence. If he can trust his technique and not worry about doing too much to make plays, he should bounce back. Not to mention there are young, hungry corners behind him in rookies Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller, which should keep Trufant on his game."
To see who the prime bounce-back candidates are among the other NFL teams, click here.