Today’s Early Bird Report includes four Falcons players who may be among the league’s best in 2019 as well as thoughts on Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement.
Atlanta has more talent on its roster than last year’s results would indicate. Hopefully, more of the Falcons’ true talent is on display in 2019 and the team can avoid the serious injuries that haunted them in 2018.
If that happens, there are several Falcons who are capable of being among the best players in the NFL. In recent prediction of the top 100 NFL players for the 2019 season, a panel of ESPN experts were asked to rate players on how good they expected them to be this fall. After calculating the rankings, the Falcons had four players make the list.
All-Pro receiver Julio Jones led the way for Atlanta at No. 7, and the man throwing him the ball, Matt Ryan, was next on the list at No. 37. Two young defensive players showed up further down the list with linebacker Deion Jones at No. 84 and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett at No. 88.
“Jones, a one-time Pro Bowler, quickly established himself as one of the elite coverage linebackers in the game, if not the best,” ESPN’s Vaughn McClure writes of Deion Jones. “His speed helps cover up mistakes made by others. Said Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher of Jones: ‘He's already a star.' Jones should be fully healthy this season after suffering a broken foot in 2018.”
To see the rest of ESPN’s future top 100 rankings, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
SI.com: What we know about Luck’s decision to retire
The NFL world was rocked Saturday night when ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted that 29-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring from the game of football.
A four-time Pro Bowler, Luck was viewed as a generational talent when coming out of Stanford, and he was among the league’s best quarterbacks for stretches during his career. Luck also sustained a number of injuries and was sacked 174 times since entering the league in 2012. Those injuries appear to have played a big role in Luck’s decision to walk about, and SI.com’s Albert Breer contextualized that thinking pretty well in his piece about the retirement.
“Put yourself in Luck’s shoes for a moment: If this calf injury, which became an ankle injury (when we talked four weeks ago, he referred to it exclusively as an ankle injury), was not only creating pain, but also confusion, of what would you be reminded,” Breer asks. “Would you be able to ignore the last four years of your life? Or would you immediately be thinking, here we go again?”
The Falcons play the Colts in Week 3, but it appears the team will not prepare to face backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the wake of Luck’s announcement.
NFL.com: Takeaways from the preseason
The Falcons dropped their fourth game of the preseason, losing to the Washington Redskins 19-7. There were some pretty solid individual efforts during the game, as well as some things the team would like to get cleaned up before the games start to matter in two weeks.
Grant Gordon reviewed the game for NFL.com, providing his thoughts on the action. His biggest takeaway from the night: The Falcons might have another potent 1-2 punch at the running back position with the way Ito Smith is playing.
“Tevin Coleman has left [sic] for San Francisco,” Gordon writes. “Devonta Freeman has returned for the Falcons, but over the last few seasons, when healthy, Freeman and Coleman have provided a game-breaking combination for the Falcons out of the backfield. By all accounts, second-season back Ito Smith is ready to take over for Coleman. On Thursday, he was arguably the most impressive offensive performer for the Falcons, nabbing 23 yards on five carries along with a nine-yard catch in a first half's worth of playing time. Smith's evening included a five-yard first-half touchdown run. On just about every successful NFL team, you need not one but two good running backs and the Falcons had that the last four years with Coleman and Freeman. They should have that again in 2019 with Smith and Freeman.”
To see the rest of NFL.com’s takeaways from Thursday night’s preseason action, click here.
Preseason power rankings
It’s time for some preseason power rankings, which are almost as pointless as the preseason, itself. But, seeing as how I’m here to keep you abreast of all things Falcons, we’re going to shine a light on them anyway!
Both ESPN and NFL.com released their sets of preseason power rankings this week, and each site has the Falcons near the middle of the pack. ESPN’s power rankings have the Falcons sitting at No. 16 and also comes with an added wrinkle of naming a player or coach who is on the proverbial hot seat entering the season. That play, in ESPN reporter Vaughn McClure’s mind is Vic Beasley.
“Beasley hasn't been the same player the past two years that he was in 2016, when he led the league with 15.5 sacks,” McClure writes. “But Falcons coach Dan Quinn, a defensive line guru and the new defensive playcaller, firmly believes he can get the best out of Beasley. Beasley himself said he expects nothing less than double-digit sacks. If he doesn't reach that and fails to be a disruptive force, don't expect the Falcons to sign the former first-rounder to a long-term extension as he enters his $12.81 million, fifth-year option.”
To see the rest of ESPN’s power rankings, click here.
Over at NFL.com, Dan Hanzua has taken over the ranking responsibilities from Elliot Harrison. He is also lukewarm on Atlanta this preseason, giving the Falcons the No. 17 spot on his list.
“Gregg Williams was not going to give Matt Ryan an easy time of it on Thursday night,” Hanzua writes. “The Jets defensive coordinator sent all sorts of heat at the former MVP, who was sacked three times and under constant pressure during his four possessions. The positive spin for the Falcons is that they did not have what they believe will be their full starting five on the field to protect Ryan, which -- while we're here -- makes you wonder why franchise cornerstones like Ryan are on the field in the first place for these exhibitions. Ryan wasn't spooked by the pressure, by the way. He completed nine straight passes at one point against New York's subpar secondary, and he would have had a touchdown if not for a pair of end-zone drops.”
To see the rest of NFL.com’s power rankings, click here.
CBS Sports: 5 bold predictions for the Atlanta Falcons
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.”
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.