Early Bird Report: Falcons' place in offensive arsenals ranking sure to stir up debate

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today’s Early Bird Report includes ranking of the best offensive arsenals that has the Falcons at an interesting spot.

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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.

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

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.

ESPN.com: Answering biggest question facing each team

For much of Matt Ryan’s tenure with the Falcons, Atlanta has boasted a noteworthy offensive attack. Their high level of play has persisted despite five changes at the Falcons’ offensive coordinator position, including their most recent hire of Dirk Koetter.

In Koetter, Ryan has a high level of familiarity and comfort, which should help the offense remain among the most dynamic in the NFL. But in a recent ESPN article the question was asked concerning whether or not the Falcons could once again reach their 2016 offensive levels, when they averaged 33.8 points per game.

“Ryan's familiarity with Koetter, who is back for his second stint as offensive coordinator, should help the offense flow a little better than last season,” ESPN Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure writes. “Having Mike Mularkey as the tight-ends coach, with his history for taking a smash-mouth approach, should be an asset in short-yardage, goal-line situations. If (Julio) Jones and (Devonta) Freeman, who have dealt with nagging injuries over their careers, remain healthy, and if the rebuilt offensive line, with rookie first-rounders Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, stands strong, the Falcons should push for 30 points per game. Then the question becomes, will Dan Quinn's defense keep opposing offenses out of the end zone?”

To see the biggest questions facing the other NFL teams, click here.

NFL.com: The NFL’s most indispensable offensive players

The NFL continually becomes a league driven by great offenses and elite athletes that pose immense problems for defenses. Atlanta has one of the NFL’s best offensive game-breakers in Julio Jones, who clocked it at the No. 5 spot on NFL.com columnist Adam Schein’s ranking of the nine most indispensable offensive players for the 2019 season.

“The Falcons had a down season in 2018, finishing below .500 for the first time in Dan Quinn's tenure,” Schein writes. “But don't blame Julio, who eclipsed 1,400 receiving yards for the fifth straight year (hauling in 113 balls for 1,677 yards). Through the years, some folks have dwelled on the freakish athlete's low touchdown totals, but A) that's more on Atlanta's approach in the red zone and B) Jones notched a respectable eight scores last season. And look for Julio's numbers to be even more eye-popping this fall, with Dirk Koetter back calling the plays.”

To read the rest of Schein’s thoughts on Jones as well as the rest of his list, click here.

NFL.com: Memorable NFL stadium sendoffs

Before the excitement of unveiling a world-class facility like Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there was the final farewell to the Georgia Dome, which had been the Falcons’ home for 25 years.

Although Atlanta fans witnessed some heartbreaking moments in the Georgia Dome, the sendoff was nothing short of spectacular. NFL.com writer Jeremy Bergman recently ranked the top 10 stadium farewells in NFL history, and he has the Georgia Dome fairly high on his list at No. 4.

“Let's get happy for a hot sec, shall we?” Bergman writes. “Some stadium sendoffs are fun, like Atlanta's closing of the Georgia Dome. That the Dome was not regarded as one of the NFL's premier venues or that the game was a blowout/shutout at halftime doesn't diminish the memory of this one. After all, a happy ending was no sure thing. Atlanta was avenging some Dome demons: The top-seeded Falcons were throttled in the 2010 Divisional Round by Aaron Rodgers' Packers, and in Atlanta's last NFC Championship Game appearance, it fell to the visiting 49ers after taking a 10-point lead into halftime. But these Falcons came out of the gates on fire, taking a 24-point lead into halftime, and salted fears of a meltdown away on their first drive out of halftime, when Jones took a crosser 73 yards to paydirt. Pay no mind to the Falcons' historic collapse in the Super Bowl two weeks later. Remember them, and their fans, as they were: ‘A buzz saw.’”

The Georgia Dome was home to some memorable moments such as Matt Ryan’s first touchdown pass and Jamal Anderson’s Dirty Bird, as well as some all-time great players like Tony Gonzalez and Deion Sanders. It won’t be forgotten soon.

To see the rest of Bergman’s list of stadium sendoffs, click here.

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CBS Sports: Ranking NFL divisions by running backs

Devonta Freeman has proven he’s a dynamic and imposing running back when on the field, which the Falcons are hoping will be the case for all of the 2019 season. But he’s not the only talented runner in the NFC South, which is home to some of the top young running backs in the league.

CBS Sports’ Sean Wagner-McGough ranked each NFL division by the talent at the running back position and the NFC South fared well. The division ranked third on his list, and it was the Falcons’ group that helped land it there.

“The Falcons' backfield is good enough to push the NFC South over the AFC West,” Wagner-McGough writes. “Devonta Freeman carries some very real injury concerns with him into the upcoming season, and the Falcons' backfield took a hit when Tevin Coleman signed with the 49ers, but if Freeman can stay healthy, the Falcons will have a RB1 who averaged 1,452.3 yards and 11.7 touchdowns from scrimmage per season from 2015-17.”

To see the rest of Wagner-McGough’s backfield rankings for the NFL’s divisions, click here.

ESPN: The surprise offseason standout for all 32 teams

Mandatory minicamps have wrapped up around the league, and they provided a first look at teams and players ahead of the 2019 season. Some players impressed more than others, but there were notable standouts on each team. With the NFL on vacation for the next month, ESPN writers shared their surprise standout for each club following minicamp. Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure pegged second-year receiver Russell Gage as Atlanta’s surprise standout.

“The second-year wide receiver has received more practice reps at the X receiver spot this offseason with Julio Jones (foot) observing,” McClure writes. “Gage, a potential special-teams ace, looks comfortable running routes and has shown nice concentration on catches. ‘He can play more than one spot,’ coach Dan Quinn said. ‘He can now add into some of those roles as Julio's backup. He can play X and inside. He's got movement for a slot. ... Once you can learn more than one position, obviously the more opps you can [get] to go play.’”

To see the other standout players from around the league, click here.

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