Early Bird Report: Falcons push NFC South near top of division RB rankings

RB Devonta Freeman

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes a ranking of each NFL division based on running back talent as well as the surprise standout from Falcons minicamp.


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.

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

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.

SI.com: The NFL's All-over-30 team

Young players are more important than ever in today's NFL, given the value of rookie contracts, but it's important to have quality veterans surrounding them. The Falcons have a strong blend of youth and experience on their roster, including two players who Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit selected for his all-over-30 team.

Julio Jones was selected as the top receiver on Benoit's team, and he is flanked by Antonio Brown and Julian Edelman. That's quite a receiving trio. At center, Alex Mack was selected to back up Jason Kelce.

"Some might believe these are the best two centers in football, regardless of age," Benoit writes. "It almost feels wasteful having them here because their main value is their football IQ, and that's not quite as vital for us, since Brady sets and adjusts protections himself—but surplus intelligence in your center-QB exchange is a good problem to have. Kelce and Mack are both outside zone blockers, relying on quickness much more than strength."

While quarterback Matt Ryan is certainly deserving of a spot on Benoit's list, he was passed over in favor of Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Former Falcons cornerback Robert Alford was also included on Benoit's team.

To see the rest of Benoit's All-over-30 team, which he believes would beat a team comprised of the top players under 30, click here.

CBS Sports: Ranking NFL divisions by quarterback play

Quarterback play has become a driver for success in the NFL, and the Falcons are in a division filled with talent at the position. In CBS Sports' Sean Wagner-McGough's opinion, the NFC South has the best collection of quarterback talent in the league.

"Drew Brees is a top-five quarterback right now and one of the best quarterbacks of all time," Wagner-McGough writes. "Matt Ryan is still underappreciated. It kinda flew under the radar that he threw for 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns, and seven interceptions last season. When healthy, Cam Newton is a top-10 quarterback and his stats from last season were significantly dampened by his shoulder injury, which prevented him from driving the ball downfield as the season wore on. Jameis Winston is the worst quarterback of the group, but there's a chance he could form a lethal combination with Bruce Arians and his deep-passing game. He's likely to remain a flawed quarterback, but he's the kind of flawed quarterback who can still post big numbers."

The NFC South earned the top spot on his list, just ahead of the AFC West, which features Patrick Mahomes and Phillip Rivers. Wagner-McGough's reasoning is that Brees, Ryan and Newton form an elite trio with Winston being capable of big production at times; that combination trumps the overall collection of talent in any other division.

To see the rest of Wagner-McGough's rankings, click here.

CBS Sports: NFC South 2019 offseason grades

Atlanta missed the postseason for the first time since 2016 last year, but the Falcons possess enough talent to make a return trip in 2019. Staying healthy will be a primary factor in whether that can happen, but the Falcons took several steps to sure up areas that were exposed by injuries last season.

Many of Atlanta's offseason moves were on the offensive side of the ball, particularly on the offensive line. CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson liked the moves the Falcons made in recent months, and he gave the team a "B" for their offseason approach.

"New faces on offense include offensive linemen James Carpenter and Jamon Grown, running back Kenjon Barner and tight end Luke Stocker, all signed as free agents," Wilson writes. "But it's what the Falcons did early in the 2019 NFL Draft that could have the biggest impact on this offense: The team took guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick and traded back into Round 1 to grab right tackle Kaleb McGary at No. 31. The expectation is the both could begin the season as starters, and if Carpenter also wins the job, 60 percent of the offensive line could feature new faces."

To read what else Wilson had to say about the Falcons' offseason as well as his opinion on the rest of the NFC South, click here.

ESPN: Why pass blocking matters more than pass rushing

It's no small secret the Falcons invested heavily in their offensive line this offseason. In addition to adding veteran guards James Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Adam Gettis, Atlanta also used two first-round draft picks on Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary.

While there was a section of the fan base clamoring for the Falcons to address the defensive line, adding one of the top-tier prospects in a loaded class, Atlanta may have taken a wiser approach. ESPN analytics expert Seth Walder unveiled a piece explaining why good pass blocking matters more to a team's success than a good pass rush.

Walder's piece relies pretty heavily on statistics, and it may be confusing initially, but the data is gathered via player tracking data from chips inserted in every NFL player's shoulder pads. The summation of the data is that winning in pass protection leads more to a team's overall success than winning as a rusher.

"In my opinion, on the offensive line, it's more critical to avoid a particularly poor weak blocker than to have a particularly strong best blocker," Walder writes. "Think of pass protection like a chain. The weakest link will cause it to break the quickest, no matter how strong any one particular link might be. And the reverse is true for defense. It may only take one defender breaking through to wreak havoc on an opposing quarterback."

After an influx of offensive linemen this offseason, the Falcons have plenty of players to evaluate and greater depth than they did this time a year ago. If Walder's comparison of an offensive line to a chain is true, the Falcons have made a concerted effort to strengthen the links.

The research in this piece is pretty detailed and thorough, so I'd recommend reading it in full if interested, which you can do here.

NFL.com: Predicting every NFC team's MVP for 2019

In 2016, Matt Ryan became the first player in Falcons history to claim the NFL MVP Award. Last season, Ryan was once again incredibly efficient throwing the football and with 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, he came extraordinarily close to matching his MVP numbers.

It's no surprise then that NFL.com's Dan Hanzus views Ryan as the Falcons' top MVP candidate heading into 2019.

"Ryan might never again match the production of his phenomenal MVP season of 2016 -- but you might be surprised how close he came a year ago," Hanzus writes. "In 2018, Ryan threw for nearly 5,000 yards with 35 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, proving once again that he remains one of the very best quarterbacks in football as he quietly builds a solid resume for Canton. Reunited with former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and boasting an enviable coterie of skill players, Ryan is going to pile up numbers again. Too bad he can't play defense, too."

To see who else Hanzus tabbed as his team's MVP, click here.

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ESPN: Falcons owner: Deals for stars 'a matter of when'

The Falcons are currently working towards extensions for Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett, who was given the team's franchise tag earlier this offseason. Past that, it's Deion Jones who seems the next likely player up for a new deal. ESPN's Vaughn McClure reached out to Arthur Blank about the ongoing discussions, and the Falcons owner continues to be optimistic about keeping the three stars in the fold.

"We have a salary cap, we have limits, that we have to think about not only today but tomorrow, and we have to balance all that off,'' Blank told McClure. "But these are three great young men that we care deeply about, both personally and professionally. They are going to be Falcons for life.

"I'm not worried about getting the deals done. I'm speaking on behalf of Atlanta and Atlanta fans. Thomas [Dimitroff] is working hard to get them done. Coach [Dan] Quinn is supportive as well. It will happen. It's just a matter of when.''

To read the rest of McClure's piece on the contract negotiations, click here.

CBS Sports: Top NFL players by jersey number

In celebration of the upcoming 100th NFL season, CBS Sports' Cody Benjamin ranked the best current-day player for each jersey number. The Falcons had six players on Benjamin's list, including Matt Ryan (No. 2), Julio Jones (No. 11), Ricardo Allen (No. 37), Deion Jones (No. 45), Alex Mack (No. 51) and Austin Hooper (No. 81).

"Not the best-looking QB number, if we're being honest, but Ryan's rocked it since Day 1, and no one else really comes close to matching his level of talent and/or production," Benjamin writes of Ryan. "These are the kicker numbers, remember!"

To see the rest of Benjamin's list and who else made the cut, click here.

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