Early Bird Report: Falcons' road in 2019 may be more difficult than it seems

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today’s Early Bird Report includes an argument for why the Falcons’ 2019 schedule may be harder than it appears.

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With a slew of important players back healthy off of injury, the Falcons are working hard to rebound from a 7-9 season in 2018. Their path to a potential third playoff berth in four years might be harder than it would seem at first glance, however.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell looked around the league and landed on five teams who are likely to improve from last year’s results, and two of those teams are in the NFC South – the Buccaneers and the Panthers.

Starting with the Panthers, who also finished with a 7-9 record after starting the season 6-2, Barnwell believes a healthier Cam Newton and a revamped defense will help Carolina prove much tougher than they did down the stretch last season. The Falcons play the Panthers in Week 11 and Week 14 this fall.

After a 5-11 record in 2018, the Buccaneers have undergone a series of changes this offseason. Bruce Arians is in at head coach, and Tampa Bay has (once again) made big moves in the draft and free agency to try and sure up its defense. The Buccaneers also brought in Todd Bowles to oversee the defense, and he will have a few new pieces to work with.

“Tampa may have upgraded by swapping out Gerald McCoy for Ndamukong Suh and Kwon Alexander for first-round pick Devin White, but it was already thin at defensive end before losing Jason Pierre-Paul, who is expected to miss most of the season with a neck injury,” Barnwell writes. “Few teams in the league are weaker on the edge than Tampa, which will need to depend on Suh and Todd Bowles' track record of creating pressure with blitzes to generate a steady pass rush. Tampa has seven defensive backs on rookie deals who were taken in one of the first three rounds of the draft, and Bowles will need to develop them into worthwhile contributors.”

The Falcons will face the Buccaneers in Week 12 and Week 17, and if Barnwell proves to be correct and Atlanta’s two division foes are indeed tougher in 2019, the path to the playoffs will be that much harder.

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

NFL.com: Julio Jones No. 9 in ranking of top 100 players

After leading the NFL in receiving yards last season, Julio Jones remains among the very best players in the league. Set to pass Roddy White as the Falcons’ all-time leading receiver in 2019, Jones’ reputation as a top wide receiver has spread far beyond Atlanta.

Jones was ranked No. 9 in the NFL Network’s “The Top 100 Players of 2019,” which aired on Wednesday evening. Jones was the second-highest wide receiver on the list, coming in two spots behind Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

“His consistency and his explosiveness and his just play strength I think is what separates him,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said on the television program. “They don’t make guys like him that are that big, that strong, that fast. And that’s what makes a guy like him fun to play against.”

Entering the 2018 season, Jones earned the No. 4 sport on the NFL Network’s ranking. This year, Jones’ ninth in the league, the Falcons’ offense is expected to again be among the best in the league. And with players like Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan, who was No. 69 in the same top 100 ranking, it’s easy to see why.

ESPN: Picking top bounce-back candidates

Desmond Trufant’s 2018 season was a showcase in resiliency. After struggling early on in the year with dropped interceptions and poor coverage, Trufant seemed to rebound during the second half of the season and end the year playing with his typical confidence.

Pro Football Focus gave Trufant and overall grade of 69.5 for his performance in 2018, which is their lowest grade for him to this point in his career. That makes Trufant a pretty solid bounce-back candidate for Atlanta in 2019, and ESPN’s Vaughn McClure chose him as such in a recent article.

“The Falcons' defense wasn't the same as a whole last season after injuries crippled the unit,” McClure writes. Trufant had some lapses -- most notably dropped potential interceptions -- but he's a player who has a swagger about him and needs to keep such confidence. If he can trust his technique and not worry about doing too much to make plays, he should bounce back. Not to mention there are young, hungry corners behind him in rookies Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller, which should keep Trufant on his game.”

To see who the prime bounce-back candidates are among the other NFL teams, click here.

AJC: Vic Beasley: ‘The time is now’

After back-to-back five-sack seasons, Vic Beasley will be one of the most important players for the Falcons’ defense in 2019. There may not be another player on the unit whose play could swing Atlanta’s fortunes more than Beasley, who could really energize the defense with a double-digit-sack campaign.

Entering his fifth season, Beasley is working to get the level of production he had in 2016, when he led the league with 15.5 sacks and was named an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. But although that may be the goal, Beasley’s focus is not in the past, it’s very much in the present.

“Look man, I’m going to continue to work hard,” Beasley told D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Regardless of what I’ve done over the past few years, I feel like, the time is now. I can’t get that time back. It is what it is. You know you have to build off that, learn from the past and continue to move forward.”

Beasley has spent time this offseason working with Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree, who has 20 sacks in his four NFL seasons. Beasley spoke with Ledbetter in greater detail about his mindset for this season, which you can read here.

CBS Sports: Inside Falcons camp

CBS Sports senior writer Pete Prisco spent a couple of days at the Falcons’ training camp. After watching and listening at the early practices, Prisco shared what he had learned about the Falcons’ upcoming season. One major point was the importance of rebuilding the offensive line, which Atlanta believes it has done.

"Winning football is about running the football when they know you are going to run the football," Matt Ryan told Prisco. "There's a confidence, a swagger, a toughness that is associated with that. When we are at our best, that's what we are doing, we are running the football effectively. We have great play-action passing off it. We have confidence to go throw it and win games that way too."

To see the rest of Prisco’s notes from Falcons camp, click here.

ESPN: Calvin Ridley aiming for greatness in Year 2

The Falcons already have arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL in Julio Jones, but Calvin Ridley emerged as one of the most promising young receivers during the 2018 season. In his first year, Ridley caught 64 passes for 821 yards and a franchise rookie record 10 touchdowns. Ridley was third on the team in receiving yards, just behind Mohamed Sanu, but he led the Falcons in touchdowns scored.

So, what can Ridley do for an encore? In a recent piece for ESPN, Vaughn McClure explained why Ridley may be poised for a breakout season and spoke with the receiver about his approach to 2019 and beyond. McClure also talked with quarterback Matt Ryan, who had nothing but praise for Ridley.

"Calvin’s been unbelievable since he stepped foot in the building," Ryan told. "I think he’s got an eagerness to learn. He has a real desire to be the very best player that he can be. And he’s competitive. Every day he comes to work, he works really hard. And he puts in the effort. It’s impressive to watch."

To read the rest of McClure’s piece on Ridley in Year 2, click here.

NFL.com: Ranking 2019 bounce-back candidates

Deion Jones heads into AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp with a new contract extension in hand and ready to bounce back from a season marred by a foot injury he suffered in Week 1. Jones also enters camp with a solid shot at the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award, according to NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks.

“The ultra-athletic linebacker was beginning to enter the discussion as one of the top defenders at his position before a foot injury limited him to just six games last season,” Brooks writes. “Jones could quickly remind the football world of his dynamism when he returns to action in September. His sideline-to-sideline range and playmaking ability previously made him the centerpiece of a Falcons defense built to stymie the pass-centric offenses in today's NFL, which is why Atlanta just handed him a four-year, $57 million extension. With Keanu Neal also returning from injury, Atlanta's D could take the league by storm in 2019, which obviously wouldn't hurt Jones' case for some year-end hardware.”

Jones’ importance to the Falcons’ defense became apparent during the first half of last season. His sideline-to-sideline range and preternatural instincts in coverage are extremely valuable skills in the current version of the NFL.

To see more of Brooks’ bounce-back candidates for 2019, click here.

NFL.com: Ranking the top 10 players in the 2016 class

Not only is Jones on Brooks’ list of bounce-back candidates, he’s also on NFL.com analyst David Carr’s ranking of the 10 best players from the 2016 NFL Draft. Jones was originally taken in the second round with the 52nd-overall pick, but he clocks in at No. 9 on Carr’s ranking, sandwiched between Carson Wentz (8) and Kevin Byard (10).

“Jones is a dynamic playmaker for the Falcons' defense,” Carr writes. “This actually became even more apparent when he wasn't on the field for the majority of last season (missed 10 games with a foot injury), as the unit finished the year ranked 28th overall. The Falcons certainly appreciate his value, having just handed the 24-year-old a four-year, $57 million extension. With three pick-sixes in his three NFL seasons, Jones isn't a linebacker offenses can consistently beat in coverage because his sideline-to-sideline speed makes it extremely difficult for pass catchers to separate on shallow-crossing routes.”

To read the rest of Carr’s ranking, click here.

AJC: Falcons upbeat as they report to camp

Players began arriving Sunday for AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, and they were in good spirits as they start their journey for the 2019 season. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter was among the reporters on the arrival scene, and he spoke to many of the players about their mindsets’ entering the year.

“One word, determined,” Cornerback Isaiah Oliver told Ledbetter about the defense. “That’s the one word that comes into my mind. We all felt that we left a lot on the table last year defensively as a unit. We didn’t really rise to the expectations that we had for ourselves. A lot of guys are determined and excited to get started this year to play to what we really are and what we can be.”

To see the rest of Ledbetter’s report from player arrivals, click here.

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