Today's Early Bird Report includes a jarring stat about Deion Jones' caliber of play as well as news of the Falcons creating additional cap space.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Falcons as they enter the 2019 season. Chief among those reasons would be the health of the defense, a unit that seemed to make big strides late in the 2017 season but was ravaged by injuries last year.
Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones didn't miss the entire 2018 season, but he did only play six games. Jones is a vital player at the heart of the defense, and his importance was illustrated starkly in a recent article by The Ringer's Robert Mays.
In the third part of his power rankings series ahead of the NFL's opening weekend, Mays lists the Falcons at No. 16. He explains some of the strengths and weaknesses of the team, but the most interesting nugget involved Jones.
"Stat of note: Third," Mays writes. "That's where Atlanta's minus-10.8 percent defensive DVOA in the six games with Deion Jones would have ranked last season, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. It's an admittedly small sample, but the Falcons' DVOA in the 10 games Jones missed was a horrendous 42.1 percent. He's one of the most important players in the NFL, and Atlanta admitted as much this offseason by signing him to a four-year, $57 million contract."
Jones enters 2019 fully healthy and ready to lead a unit that will also have Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen back for Week 1. To read the rest of Mays' power rankings, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
NFL Network: Falcons creating cap room
On Wednesday morning, NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo tweeted that the Falcons were creating additional cap space by converting the base salaries of Ricardo Allen and Jake Matthews into a signing bonus.
In his tweet, Garafolo infers that the Falcons are creating the additional cap space for Julio Jones, who has been in talks with the team regarding a long-term contract extension.
ESPN: Ollison will continue to honor brother
After a strong preseason, rookie Qadree Ollison is one of five tailbacks on the Falcons' 53-man roster. Following Monday's news that fullback Ricky Ortiz had been waived with an injury settlement, Ollison had an important conversation with coach Dan Quinn.
During his final season at the University of Pittsburgh, Ollison switched his jersey No. from 37 to 30 in honor of his older brother, LeRowne Harris, who wore that number during his own youth playing days. Ollison will continue to wear No. 30 with the Falcons in memory of his brother, who was shot and killed at a gas station parking lot.
"They've got to call and ask the league, but [Quinn] said it shouldn't be a problem,'' Ollison told ESPN's Vaughn McClure. "A number is a number, but this means a little bit more to me. It's going to be really nice to have that. It's going to be exciting for everybody, just wearing that number and what it represents to me and my family.''
To read the rest of McClure's report on Ollison's number swap, click here.
NFL.com: Week 1 power rankings
The Falcons will open the 2019 NFL season well outside of the top 10 in Dan Hanzus' power rankings on NFL.com. Atlanta begins the year ranked No. 16, but the Falcons have more than enough talent to continue to climb throughout the season.
"There's a very good chance the Falcons' offense is significantly better in 2019," Hanzus writes. "Former MVP Matt Ryan and All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones are givens. But let's focus on two players with monster upside: Wide receiver Calvin Ridley and running back Devonta Freeman. Ridley quietly enjoyed an excellent rookie season with 821 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. If he takes the next step, the former first-round pick could give Atlanta a more explosive version of Roddy White to pair with Jones. Freeman's 2018 season was ruined by numerous injuries, and his absence was felt in both the running and passing games for Atlanta. Freeman's return should restore balance to Atlanta's offense, his job made easier by what should be an improved offensive line. The Falcons may never match the heights of their glorious 2016 attack, but they have the potential to lead the NFC in everything in 2019. That'll play."
For those wondering, the Vikings, Atlanta's Week 1 opponent, ranks No. 12 in Hanzus' power rankings. You can read the rest of the power rankings, here.
ESPN: How Matt Ryan connects with his younger teammates
Few professions have as great a turnover rate as playing football. While the average age of an NFL player continues to get younger, it can be increasingly difficult for some of the league's elder statesmen to relate to their teammates.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is keenly aware of the benefits in connecting with some of the youngest players on Atlanta's roster, a chunk of whom he is a decade older than. ESPN's Vaughn McClure spoke with Ryan and a few other Falcons players about this very aspect of Atlanta's locker room and wove together a pretty entertaining story.
"I always think this: If you are yourself in the locker room and you are who you are, other people can appreciate that," Ryan told McClure. "Sometimes when you're trying a little bit too hard ... I just think the best way to relate to anybody is just being yourself. ... And I think that kind of helps cross generations."
McClure also spoke with second-year receiver Russell Gage and second-year quarterback Kurt Benkert about their experiences with Ryan, and they had some stories to share that Falcons fans might be interested in. To check those out and see the rest of McClure's piece, click here.
ESPN: We simulated the entire 2019 season
It's officially Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season, but ESPN isn't content to let these next 17 weeks play out. They want to know what 2019 has in store, and they want to know now. The analytics group over at ESPN simulated the entire season 20,000 times using their ESPN Football Power Index. After the results were calculated, the site provided storylines for several games each week all the way through the Super Bowl.
The Falcons looked like one of the NFL's most dominant offenses at times in the simulation, and they snagged the NFC's final wild card spot with the 9-7 record. Atlanta swept Tampa Bay in division play and split with both Carolina and New Orleans. The Falcons also cruised to an easy 37-21 victory against the Saints on Thanksgiving Night.
"The two teams entered this rivalry game tied in the standings, but Atlanta had no problem throwing on the Saints in this 37-21 win," ESPN notes. "For the first time in a while, New Orleans looks awfully mortal, and at 7-5, they are no sure thing for the postseason."
To see the rest of the 2019 simulations, click here.
NFL.com: Takeaways from final preseason games
Atlanta's preseason losing streak came to an end Thursday night with a resounding 31-12 victory against Jacksonville in the team's final exhibition game. There were a number of standout performances, both offensively and defensively, including great showings by rookie running backs Qadree Ollison and Tony Brooks-James.
The most important performance, however, was that of Kaleb McGary. The first-round draft pick made his first appearance for the Falcons on Thursday night, and boy was he impressive. In his takeaways from Atlanta's win, NFL.com writer Grant Gordon made sure to mention McGary.
"Though expected, Kaleb McGary making his preseason debut on Thursday was still an impressive turn of events considering the hurdle he's overcome in a short time to get back out there," Gordon writes. "The Falcons first-round pick had been gone all of August after undergoing a heart ablation procedure. But McGary not only returned to action, he looked stellar starting at right tackle. He was quick off the ball, looked strong and was aggressive in the run game. Though running back Qadree Ollison's nine-yard touchdown run was off left tackle, McGary dominated his man on the opposite side in a one-on-one. Sure this was McGary's only preseason showing, but it was impressive enough that he could possibly garner the starting job to begin the season with Ty Sambrailo (shoulder) injured."
To see the rest of Gordon's takeaways from the Falcons' final preseason game, click here.
ESPN: Predicting breakout players for 2019
The Falcons are hoping for an improved pass rush in 2019. Many of the same faces return from last year's group, including Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley and Jack Crawford. A couple of new faces – most notably, Tyeler Davison and Adrian Clayborn – could provide a nice push, but a breakout campaign might really get things going.
ESPN's Vaughn McClure picked McKinley to be his breakout Falcons player for 2019. The third-year end led all Falcons with seven sacks last season, and he's got the right combination of skills to take the next jump.
"The 2017 first-round pick came to the league with a chip on his shoulder, and it's gotten bigger based on McKinley paying close attention to outside criticism," McClure writes. "But it seems McKinley is learning to take his frustrations out on opponents rather than voicing his anger on social media. His progress and potential as a pass-rusher has head coach/defensive coordinator Dan Quinn excited."
McKinley entered training camp fully healthy for the first time in his NFL career, and Quinn says the pass rusher looks lighter and further ahead than he was at this point last season.
To read the rest of ESPN's predicted breakout players, click here.
NFL.com: 2019 NFL playoff predictions
After a year watching the postseason from the outside, the Falcons are preparing to make a run to the playoffs for the third time in four years. Injuries largely derailed Atlanta's quest for three-straight playoff trips last season, but with a little more injury luck the Falcons have the talent to make the single-elimination tournament. NFL.com's panel of experts believe Atlanta can do that. Six of the experts pegged the Falcons to earn the NFC's No. 2 wild card spot.
"Remember, it was injuries that doomed Atlanta last season -- and the offense is still loaded, with Dirk Koetter back in charge," NFL.com's Judy Battista writes. "The Falcons will have to claw for this spot in a brutal division and against one of the league's toughest schedules."
To see the rest of NFL.com's playoff predictions, click here.