Early Bird Report: Falcons among NFL's most-improved teams

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today’s Early Bird Report includes the most- and least-improved NFL teams and a sneaky-good early season matchup that includes the Falcons.

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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.

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

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.

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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.

ESPN: The best and worst NFL offensive arsenals

Atlanta’s offense has been among the best in the NFL for several years now and with a vast majority of skill players returning in 2019 there is reason to believe the Falcons will continue to put up points. But where do the Falcons rank among the league’s best offensive units?

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell provided his rankings of the NFL’s offensive arsenals prior to the 2019 season, and he has the Falcons at No. 10. An argument could certainly be made that Atlanta should be higher on the list given the level of talent at quarterback and receiver alone, a point Barnwell acknowledges.

“If I was making a list of the scariest wideout sets in football, the Falcons would rank in the top five for a third consecutive campaign,” Barnwell writes. “Calvin Ridley slowed down after a hot start, but he became just the fifth wide receiver over the past 40 seasons to top 800 yards and 10 touchdowns in his rookie campaign. The other guys in that group are Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Mike Williams (Tampa edition) and Randy Moss. Mohamed Sanu, overqualified for third wideout work, racked up 838 receiving yards as what amounted to Atlanta's third target. You know Julio Jones, and his bizarre touchdown-less streak dissipated with eight over his final nine games. Jones has also only missed two games over the past four seasons.”

The reason Barnwell has the Falcons at the bottom of his top 10 is the rest of the skill positions. He’s not as high on tight end Austin Hooper as others are, and he is apprehensive about what Devonta Freeman can bring to the offense after sustaining injuries in each of the last two seasons. And the loss of Tevin Coleman in free agency didn’t help matters in Barnwell’s opinion, either.

To see the rest of Barnwell’s rankings and what else he has to say about the Falcons, click here.

NFL.com: 2019 NFL triplets rankings

The Falcons have long boasted a number of versatile and dangerous offensive weapons. Recent injuries to Devonta Freeman have somewhat stifled Atlanta’s rushing attack, but if he’s healthy the Falcons have a trio of skill players in Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Freeman that can rival many in the league. NFL.com deputy editor Ali Bhanpuri appears to feel the same way as he ranked the Falcons sixth on his ranking of NFL triplets heading into the 2019 season. He ranked Ryan No. 7 among quarterback, Freeman No. 24 among running backs and Jones No. 2 among receivers. It does appear he grappled with that decision a bit, however.

“I put off writing this blurb until the end because I knew it meant defending my decision to rank Julio Jones No. 2 among pass catchers and figuring out where to place Devonta Freeman,” Bhanpuri writes. “(Matt Ryan is great, and I can't imagine anyone taking issue with his place among the QBs.) Jones, who turned 30 in February, had one of the best seasons of his career in 2018, silencing critics who say he's too inconsistent from game to game (his 10 100-yard performances were the most of his career), doesn't score enough touchdowns (went from 3 to 8) and gets hurt too often (started all 16 games in back-to-back seasons). Only Jerry Rice has more receiving seasons of 1,400-plus yards (six) than Jones' five, but not even the 49ers legend managed the feat five years in a row like Julio. The only reason Hopkins ranked higher than the two-time All-Pro was because of the drop differential (0 for Nuk in 2018, 8 for Jones). While I lamented not putting Jones one spot higher, I'm worried I perhaps put Freeman too high. The two-time Pro Bowler has missed 16 of his last 23 games due to a series of ailments (hamstring, groin, concussions). But I'm banking on the back returning to his shifty, versatile self this year with the help of an upgraded offensive line, a plethora of talent on the perimeter and, most importantly, a clean bill of health.”

To see the rest of Bhanpuri’s rankings and who he had ahead of Atlanta, click here.

The Ringer: Who is the best receiver in the NFL?

It is an undeniable fact that Julio Jones is not only one of the best wide receivers in today’s NFL, but he’s also making a strong case as one of the top all-time players in history at the position. Jones led the NFL with 1,677 receiving yards in 2018, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

In our society, it’s not enough to be among the best; everyone wants to know who holds the No. 1 spot. Jones claims that top spot in the eyes of many Falcons fans, but it’s an ongoing debate nationally and one that The Ringer’s Robert Mays dove into recently.

Mays made the case for five wide receivers as the best that the NFL currently has to offer. Here’s a portion of what he had to say about Jones:

“Julio Jones makes defenders play scared. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds with 4.34-second 40-yard dash speed, Jones is one of the most physically gifted and imposing receivers the NFL has ever seen. So even if that fear shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s still amazing to see how cornerbacks react to him. When threatening receivers downfield, Jones chews up yardage at an incredible pace. Even the fastest corners seem shocked by how quickly he gets on top of them, and it leads to most players retreating as fast as possible. That respect for Jones’s deep speed makes his comeback and out routes some of the most devastating plays in football. Watching the way Jones navigates the defensive backfield is akin to how LeBron James moved around a basketball court in his prime; it’s hard to reconcile a man that big covering that much ground, and the way he owns space changes how the rest of the game is played.”

Despite his immense respect for Jones’ talent and production, Mays ultimately went with Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins as his choice for the top receiver in the league right now. However, Mays did admit that his decision was basically “a toss-up” between Jones and Hopkins with the Texans receiver getting a very small nod because of his reliability catching the most difficult passes.

To see Mays’ case for the other top NFL receivers as well as the rest of what he had to say about Jones, click here.

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