FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes Deion Jones' candidacy for a year-end award as well as the Falcons' upbeat arrival to camp.
Deion Jones heads into AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp with a new contract extension in hand and ready to bounce back from a season marred by a foot injury he suffered in Week 1. Jones also enters camp with a solid shot at the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year Award, according to NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks.
"The ultra-athletic linebacker was beginning to enter the discussion as one of the top defenders at his position before a foot injury limited him to just six games last season," Brooks writes. "Jones could quickly remind the football world of his dynamism when he returns to action in September. His sideline-to-sideline range and playmaking ability previously made him the centerpiece of a Falcons defense built to stymie the pass-centric offenses in today's NFL, which is why Atlanta just handed him a four-year, $57 million extension. With Keanu Neal also returning from injury, Atlanta's D could take the league by storm in 2019, which obviously wouldn't hurt Jones' case for some year-end hardware."
Jones' importance to the Falcons' defense became apparent during the first half of last season. His sideline-to-sideline range and preternatural instincts in coverage are extremely valuable skills in the current version of the NFL.
To see more of Brooks' bounce-back candidates for 2019, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
AJC: Falcons upbeat as they report to camp
Players began arriving Sunday for AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, and they were in good spirits as they start their journey for the 2019 season. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter was among the reporters on the arrival scene, and he spoke to many of the players about their mindsets' entering the year.
"One word, determined," Cornerback Isaiah Oliver told Ledbetter about the defense. "That's the one word that comes into my mind. We all felt that we left a lot on the table last year defensively as a unit. We didn't really rise to the expectations that we had for ourselves. A lot of guys are determined and excited to get started this year to play to what we really are and what we can be."
To see the rest of Ledbetter's report from player arrivals, click here.
It's a new year. Take a look through these first day of 2019 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp polaroids and find out who has the most NFL season seniority.
ESPN: Ranking the most-, least-improved teams
During the 2019 NFL offseason, the Falcons chose to invest heavily in their offensive line, signing free agents James Carpenter and Jamon Brown (among others) and using their first two draft picks on guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary.
The moves were made with an emphasis on protecting Matt Ryan and striking more balance offensively, overall. A trio of ESPN writers are fans of the Falcons' approach this offseason. Dan Graziano, Kevin Seifert and Mike Clay believe Atlanta is the eight-most-improved team heading into the 2019 season, putting them in the top quarter of the league in that regard.
"The Falcons put an emphasis on improving quarterback Matt Ryan's protection, a year after he took the second-most sacks (42) in his career," Seifert writes. "It was a necessary step toward improvement. But did the Falcons do enough to restore a defense that allowed 26.4 points per game last season, eighth-most in the league?"
To see the rest of ESPN's rankings of the most and least improved teams, click here.
CBS Sports: Sneaky early season games we want to see
Two years ago, the Falcons and Vikings were entering the 2017 season as primary Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. They may not be at the forefront of that discussion right now, but both teams are certainly capable of making a strong postseason push. The Falcons and Vikings will get to test one another right out of the gate as they square off in Week 1 in Minnesota. That's a game CBS Sports' Will Brinson is ready to watch right now.
"You could make the case these two teams are too good as well, but I don't think this will qualify as a game that anyone is obsessed with watching," Brinson writers. "I am though! I want to see how the Vikings offense looks with Gary Kubiak's influence taking hold. How will the Falcons new, reworked and young offensive line hold up against a fierce Vikings pass rush? Both teams aren't on the top list of favorites around the NFL, but they're both thinking Super Bowl. I want to see how they jump out of the gate in Week 1."
To see the rest of Brinson's list of sneaky-good early season games for 2019, click here.
ESPN: How Dan Quinn began his coaching career
There are only 32 head coaches in the NFL, but each and every one of them started down near the bottom of the coaching ranks. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is no exception.
Quinn shared the story of how he broke into coaching with ESPN's Vaughn McClure, and it's quite the tale. As a volunteer football assistant for William & Mary, Quinn slept on a couch in the locker room, worked part-time jobs in addition to coaching and even cut the head coach's hair.
"I don't remember how we got him there or anything because I'm an old dude, but I know 'Quinny' was a hard worker," Russ Huesman an assistant at William & Mary when Quinn was there told McClure. "I don't think you sit in the head coach's seat, now, but Dan was tremendous. Sometimes when you're that young, you don't know what it takes to coach. But, man, he was conscientious. He was probably mature beyond his years."
Quinn's maturity and hard work led him to the role he currently occupies, looking to get the Falcons back into the postseason for the third time in four years.
To read the rest of McClure's interesting and enlightening piece on Quinn's coaching start, click here.
CBS Sports: One make-or-break game for each NFL team
Every game during an NFL season can mean the difference between a team making the postseason or missing it, but while all games carry the same weight some feel more important than others. CBS Sports' John Breech recently combed through every NFL team's schedule to single out one "make or break" game for the 2019 season.
The contest Breech chose for the Falcons is likely one fans already have circled on their calendar – the Week 13 home game against the New Orleans Saints on Thanksgiving night.
"The Falcons have lost three in a row to the Saints and they're going to need that drought to end if they want to compete for the NFC South title," Breech writes. "The Saints ruined Thanksgiving for Falcons fans last year with a Turkey Day win in New Orleans and Falcons fans are probably hoping that the Saints don't make them sick to their stomach for the second straight season."
To see the rest of the make or break games Breech picked, click here.
NFL.com: Power ranking the NFL's head coaches
The 2018 season marked the Falcons' worst under coach Dan Quinn but that was largely the result of poor injury luck. Since Quinn's arrival, the Falcons are 36-28 in the regular season with two playoff appearances in four years and a trip to the Super Bowl. Quinn is betting on himself in 2019, assuming the defensive coordinator responsibilities in addition to his role as head coach, but he was one of the best coordinators in the league while with Seattle.
NFL.com's Elliott Harrison remains high on Quinn. In a recent power ranking of NFL head coaches, Harrison had Quinn just outside of the top 10 at No. 11.
"The Falcons struggled to their worst season under Dan Quinn, finishing second in the NFC South at 7-9," Harrison writes. "Which should tell you much about Quinn's run in Atlanta. In four seasons, after inheriting what had been a floundering football team, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator pushed them to two postseason appearances and a narrow Super Bowl loss. Last season seemed to go up in smoke from Week 1, when Atlanta lost Deion Jones and Keanu Neal to injury right away. Devonta Freeman played in just two games, and the secondary was never right. Yet, in the end, Quinn was able to keep the team from fading from respectability. Still, 36-28 is a healthy regular season record for one of the youngish head coaches in the league."
To see the rest of Harrison's list and the coaches he has ahead of Quinn, click here.
CBS Sports: The top 100 players in the NFL
Heading into the 2019 season, the experts at CBS Sports sat down and ranked their top 100 players in the NFL. This is a pretty common practice among national media outlets, but it provides a good sense of how certain players are viewed nationally. Four Falcons players made the list, with Julio Jones ranked highest among them at No. 11.
"Jones has now led the league in receiving yards in two of the past four seasons, and led it in receiving yards per game in three of those four," CBS Sports states. "Oh, and he's led the whole league in PFF's Yards Per Route Run in each of those four seasons. He also broke the silly 'Julio Jones can't score touchdowns' curse last season, with eight of them. This is a receiver at the top of his game, which means he is very near the top of the NFL's game as well."
Joining Jones on the list were Matt Ryan (No. 30), Grady Jarrett (No. 70) and Deion Jones (No. 74). It's good to see Jarrett and Deion Jones make this list and earn some national recognition for their strong play in recent seasons.
To see the rest of CBS Sports' list, click here.