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Early Bird Report: Falcons' Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley earn spots on year-end lists 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today’s Early Bird Report includes a possibly crowded safety position and a pair of Falcons players on year-end lists.

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One of the pleasant surprises for the Falcons in 2018 has been the emergence of second-year defensive back Damontae Kazee. Kazee, who has been the team’s starting free safety for much of the season, has the second-most interceptions in the NFL this season with six.

Alongside Kazee, however, the Falcons have seen Jordan Richards and Sherrod Neasman show competence while helping him replace starters Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, who have missed a vast majority of the season.

But Allen and Neal are expected to return to action next season, and Falcons coach Dan Quinn said they would for sure be the team’s starters on the back end when they do. Given the depth Atlanta appears to have at the position, The Atlanta Journal-Constitutions Matt Winkeljohn believes the Falcons have plenty of talent but there are now some different questions to ask.

“Make no mistake, if Neal recovers on schedule from his torn ACL and Allen heals completely from his ruptured Achilles tendon, they’re starters next season,” Winkeljohn writes. “As Quinn said when asked about that, ‘Yes.’

“But you’ve got to have backups, as this Falcons season has shown, and while Quinn continues to say that he sees Kazee – a college cornerback -- as a free safety or nickel back in the future, Neasman and Richards may be in the team’s plans as well.”

To read the rest of Winkeljohn’s piece, click here.

NFL.com: Five offensive rookies in ideal spots

With the season nearly complete it’s become clear that some members of this year’s rookie class are in a better position than some. Sharing his thoughts on the topic, NFL.com analyst David Carr released the five rookies he believes are in the most ideal spots. Falcons rookie receiver Calvin Ridley is on that list.

“It's an ideal situation for any wide receiver to be picked by a team that already has an established WR1,” Carr writes. “Yes, Ridley is talented enough to be a No. 1 receiver, but he doesn't have to be with Julio Jones taking the double teams and going against top defensive backs. Ridley has benefited from facing single coverage against CB2s and CB3s, along with having a former league MVP in Matt Ryan under center. The biggest takeaway is he's been able to learn and grow in the Falcons' offensive system without having the pressure of being the guy.”

To see who else is on Carr’s list, click here.

CBS Sports: Revamped ultimate roster

Prior to the start of the season, CBS Sports’ Joel Corry put together the ultimate NFL roster that would adhere to salary cap numbers and other defined criteria. Now, he’s back to provide an updated edition using the information gleaned during the 2018 season. Julio Jones was the only Falcons player to make the cut, but he’s more than earned a spot on this roster.

“Nobody has more receiving yards than Jones' 4,392 since the start of the 2016 season,” Corry writes. “He is leading the NFL with 1,539 yards on 104 receptions. Jones also topped the league in receiving yards in 2015, when he had a career-best 1,871. This is third time Jones has cracked the 1,500 receiving mark in his eight NFL seasons. He is currently the all-time leader in reception yards per game with 96.3 each outing.”

To see the rest of Corry’s ultimate roster, click here.

Week 17 power rankings

“Two straight wins for the Falcons, who are trying to make their 2018 campaign respectable. Despite the cruddy record, and all of the injuries, Atlanta has only been outscored by 11 points this season, which indicates that Dan Quinn's outfit will be a leading candidate to rebound in 2019. What stuck out from Sunday's win was the balance the offense struck, passing for 233 yards while piling up 194 on the ground. The offensive line performed, allowing a lone sack of Matt Ryan, while the offense as a whole averaged a robust 8.9 yards per play. Three in a row? If they can win at Tampa.”

“Dan Quinn is coming back next year, but what changes are coming to his staff?”

“Non-QB MVP: WR Julio Jones. The six-time Pro Bowler's value extends beyond the numbers, although Jones currently leads the league with 1,539 receiving yards (104 catches). Jones constantly draws extra defensive attention, which opens up one-on-one opportunities for his teammates. And his incredible catch radius means Matt Ryan doesn't have to throw every ball perfectly.”

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

ESPN: A lost season for the Falcons

Entering the 2018 season, there was a lot of expectations for the Falcons. Coming off of back-to-back playoff appearances, Atlanta was once again projected to be a Super Bowl contender. That, obviously, did not happen and there are plenty of reasons why. ESPN’s Vaughn McClure discussed the year with several players, breaking down what went wrong and the areas that could be addressed in the near future.

"I think it all comes down to any scheme will work if everyone's doing the right thing and working hard and getting better, and on the same page," Falcons center Alex Mack told McClure. "I think it's more about how players perform with the plays that are called and getting a groove and moving forward than it is pure X's and O's.

To read the rest of McClure’s piece, click here.

AJC: Falcons show they still have talent

The Falcons have good individual talent on their roster even if injuries have sapped some of that talent this season. In their win against the Panthers, the Falcons showed a glimpse of that overall talent. As Michael Cunningham writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it was a nice reminder that the talent on hand is still enough to win football games.

“The Falcons overcame their mistakes because they were too good for the Panthers,” Cunningham writes. “There were even signs they’ve recaptured some of the spirit that animated them during their Super Bowl season, but that had gone missing as they struggled this year.” 

To read the rest of Cunningham’s column, click here.

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