Early Bird Report: ESPN lays out the path for a Falcons Super bowl

Today’s Early Bird Report includes Bill Barnwell’s scenario for the perfect Falcons 2019 season.

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The 2019 season officially kicks off tonight when the Green Bay Packers square off against the Chicago Bears. Both of those teams, like 30 others in the NFL, have Super Bowl aspirations. Only one team can walk away with the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year, however.

If there’s got to be a team to win it all, why can’t it be the Falcons? Atlanta is once again brimming with talent on the roster, and better injury luck should help the Falcons rebound from a disappointing 2018. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell laid out the scenario for Atlanta winning this year’s Super Bowl.

“We also know what the Falcons can do, at least during the postseason,” Barnwell writes. “We need to see their defense maintain that level of play for a long stretch of time during the regular season. They have ranked 26th, 22nd and 31st in defensive DVOA during the regular season over the last three seasons, only to create 10 takeaways and piece together dominant stretches of play over five postseason games. As good as they were in 2016, consider that the 2017 Falcons held the Rams to 13 points in Los Angeles and an Eagles team that rolled over the Vikings and Patriots to 15 points in Philly.

“If that version of Dan Quinn's defense shows up for a full season, the Falcons might have a good shot at finishing with the league's best record. Even if they can just stay healthy and get to league average on defense, their offense should be good enough to carry them to the postseason. Atlanta's path would be even clearer if the Saints slip.”

To see the rest of Barnwell’s cases for each team to win the Super Bowl, click here.

Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:

The Ringer: 2019 NFL power rankings

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.

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.

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