FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes a list of the NFL's most impactful players coming off of an injury.
After missing much or all of last season, there are a number of players who should be healthy for the Falcons in 2019. That's the case for many teams around the league, as injuries are an unfortunate and inherent part of the game.
But which returning players could make the biggest impact? The Ringer's Danny Kelly gave this question some thought in a recent piece, and while the Falcons have several candidates who could make this list, Kelly settled on running back Devonta Freeman.
"The Falcons run game took a step back in efficiency last year in large part because the team lost its starter, Freeman, to a groin injury after just two games," Kelly writes. "The veteran runner, who was never really healthy even in the two games he played, carried the ball just 14 times for 68 yards and zero touchdowns before hitting the injured reserve. Now he's healthy and "having fun," and ready to get back to his role as a dynamic tackle-breaking creator on the ground. The Falcons will need him to do just that; with former backfield mate Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco, the team's depth chart is thin (with second-year pro Ito Smith, third-year pro Brian Hill, and rookie Qadree Ollison providing support). Freeman should carry a heavy load."
Freeman was injured in the team's season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. He returned in Week 5 against the Steelers but suffered an ultimately season-ending injury in that same game.
To see the other returning players who made Kelly's list, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
ESPN: Predicting storylines for all 32 teams
Rarely do offseason and preseason narratives stay with a team throughout the course of the regular season. Remember when Josh Rosen was the Cardinals' future, when the Browns were (again) the NFL's laughingstock and when Patrick Mahomes was a guy with a big arm who needed to prove himself?
Although things in the NFL rarely play out the conventional way – why do you think we all love sports so much? – it's still interesting to think about the storylines for each team as we approach the 2019 season.
ESPN recently asked each of its NFL beat reporters to predict the storyline for the team they cover. Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure thinks the question of the season for Atlanta will be – "Can the Falcons remain healthy and become contenders again?
"Linebacker De'Vondre Campbell tweeted, 'I guess people seem to have forgotten how good we are when we're healthy lol. I can't wait till the season starts.' The injury bug hit the Falcons hard last season, with Devonta Freeman, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco lost to season-ending injuries and star middle linebacker Deion Jones missing significant time," McClure writes. "Freeman's return should positively impact an already-potent offense now coordinated by Dirk Koetter, while coach Dan Quinn will be thankful to have Neal and Allen back as he takes over the defensive playcalling."
To see the other predicted storylines in the NFL, click here.
ESPN: Falcons hope Ryan-Koetter reunion sparks resurgence
By bringing in Dirk Koetter this offseason, the Falcons ensured they weren't starting from scratch at offensive coordinator. Koetter, who was the Falcons' offensive coordinator from 2012-14, has plenty of experience working with Matt Ryan, and that familiarity should help everyone get on the same page very quickly.
"I know more of the terminology because I've been around it for the last four years," Ryan told ESPN's Vaughn McClure. "He's pretty smart. He's a really smart coach. He's well-versed. Having played against us a bunch as the head coach, he's well-versed in what we do, too. It might take him a second to remember what we call certain things, but he knows exactly what they are."
To read the rest of McClure's piece on Ryan and Koetter reuniting, click here.
NFL.com: One key homegrown player for each NFC team
The Falcons have relied heavily on the draft to build their roster since Dan Quinn arrived as head coach. They've built the key part of their roster around homegrown players such as Matt Ryan, Deion Jones, Desmond Trufant and Austin Hooper. A number of drafted players will have to step up in 2019, but NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal believes second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver may be the most important for Atlanta.
"On a relatively static roster that could have only one new defensive starter, Oliver stands out," Rosenthal writes. "Coach Dan Quinn confirmed the 2018 second-round pick will start and expects him to take a "step up" in his second season after two starts and 240 snaps as a rookie. It wasn't so long ago the Falcons thought they were set at the position for years to come, with Robert Alford and Jalen Collins behind Desmond Trufant. Only Trufant remains of that trio, and Oliver is likely to be targeted early and often because of his lack of experience. In a pass-heavy, QB-dominant division, only the teams with the best cornerbacks survive."
To see the rest of Rosenthal's key homegrown player list, click here.
NFL.com: Ranking top five receivers with best hands
Falcons fans don't need to be reminded of just how spectacular Julio Jones is on the football field. One of the very best wide receivers in the NFL, Jones posted a league-leading 1,677 yards in 2018.
Jones surely gets national respect for his abilities, but former NFL receiver Nate Burleson thinks he may not get all of the respect he deserves. After ranking Jones as the receiver with the second-best hands in the league, Burleson explained that the Falcons star's quiet nature may have helped make him slightly underrated.
"He is that quiet and humble superhero that doesn't say much," Burleson explained on "Good Morning Football." "Julio could come out every single season and say, 'Why aren't you guys talking about me enough? I put up numbers and you should respect me as the best receiver in the game.' But yet still we don't, though."
The lone receiver Burleson ranked ahead of Jones was Houston's DeAndre Hopkins. To see the rest of Burleson's list, click here.
Yahoo Sports: Every NFL general manager's defining pick
Every NFL general manager has a defining pick. A draft selection that will ultimately determine his legacy with an NFL team. For some, it's a late-round pick who blossomed into a future Hall of Famer. For others, it could be a top-10 pick who is out of the league in three years.
Quarterbacks are fairly common as a drafter's defining choice, which makes sense given their importance to a frachise. Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm recently combed through the resumes of all 32 NFL general managers to name the pick he believes is the defining one for each of them.
For Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Edholm believes his first pick has been the defining one thus far.
"Dimitroff has drafted 87 players since taking over the Falcons' front office, including four selections in the top 10," Edholm writes. "None have meant more overall to the health of the franchise than his first selection. Upon taking over in 2008, the Falcons owned the third pick and were in a situation with former franchise savior Michael Vick in prison and the QB spot in serious question. Dimitroff didn't doubt his judgment on Ryan and didn't hesitate handing him the keys to the operation.
"Despite the Falcons not winning a Super Bowl, the move unquestionably was the right one. Ryan hasn't always reached an elite level of play, but he was the league's MVP in 2016, hasn't missed a game since the 2009 season and will be seeking his ninth straight 4,000-yard season in 2019."
To see the other defining picks for each NFL GM, as well as Edholm's case for why Julio Jones may be Dimitroff's defining selection, click here.