Early Bird Report: Falcons' top position battle entering training camp

Today’s Early Bird Report includes a look at the top training camp battle ahead of a big season for the Falcons

By signing Todd Gurley this offseason, the Falcons shored up the starting running back position with a player who has previously been among the best in the league.

While the Falcons feel confident in Gurley's health for the 2020 season, there are questions about the status of his knee, externally. That makes the depth Atlanta has cultivated at running back potentially crucial this fall. The Falcons like the depth they have in the backfield, and all three players behind Gurley should have a role for the team.

When previewing the top training camp battle in Atlanta this year, ESPN's Vaughn McClure pointed to the running back position.

"Sure, Todd Gurley II is expected to be the primary guy as the most decorated of the backs," McClure writes. "But remember, Gurley was released by the Rams, and there were concerns about the health of his left knee. That means the guys behind Gurley -- Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison -- have to be prepared if thrust into a starting role while also fighting for backup reps. The Falcons are sure to be wise and not overload Gurley regardless. Hill and Ollison both run with physicality, while Smith is a change-of-pace, smaller, quicker guy who has shown flashes when not injured."

The Falcons believe they can find roles for all three players without having to define a specific pecking order, as coach Dan Quinn previously explained.

"They may be in different roles and make sure we are just going to put the guys in the very best spots," Quinn said. "… That whole group of guys I certainly think we will have to try to find roles for everyone and then make sure we are really clear on what they do best and try to feature them in those ways."

To see the top training camp battle for every other NFL team, click here.

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

PFF.com: Top 25 interior offensive linemen entering 2020

Preseason rankings are inherently more of an acknowledgement of what a player has accomplished throughout his career, mixed with a bit of projection, than they are a guarantee of performance ability. Nevertheless, there's no denying that Alex Mack can still play as well as nearly any NFL offensive lineman.

Pro Football Focus writer Ben Linsley agrees, ranking Mack his fourth-best interior offensive lineman entering the 2020 season. Mack has one year remaining on his current contract with the Falcons, so it's unclear what the future holds for him in Atlanta, but he's been incredibly solid since joining the organization since 2016 and figures to be once again this fall.

"It's always interesting to hear who some of the best players in the NFL point out as their toughest individual matchups, and run-stuffing extraordinaire Damon 'Snacks' Harrison singled out Mack as one of his toughest matchups on PFF's 2 for 1 Drafts podcast this offseason. 'To me, Alex Mack was the best offensive lineman I ever played against,' Harrison said when prompted on who some of his toughest NFL assignments were.

"Mack may be entering his age-35 season in 2020, but the guy is still getting the job done at a high level. Despite a slight dip in play on a struggling Falcons offensive line in 2019, Mack still put up a top-10 overall grade at the center position, and his body of work speaks for itself. Over the last decade, Mack put up top-five marks in pass-blocking grade and run-blocking grade at the center position, and he's been dominant in an Atlanta run game that has prioritized outside zone ever since he joined the team in 2016. There may be several question marks along that offensive line heading into 2020, but Mack isn't one of them."

The Falcons are hoping to have a couple more names on this list going into the 2021 season, given the ability Chris Lindstrom showed in his limited time on the field as a rookie and the talent Matt Hennessy displayed in college.

To see Pro Football Focus's entire list of the top interior offensive linemen entering 2020, click here.  

NFL.com: Projecting NFL's 2020 stat leaders

Julio Jones has not finished outside of the top three in receiving yards since the 2013 season, when he played only five games due to injury. Twice in his career, Jones has finished a season as the NFL's leading receiver, and recent projection from NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund picks the Falcons' All-Pro to do so once again.

Frelund's projection landed at Jones leading the way with 1,510 yards in 2020, a number he's surpassed three other times in his career.

"The return of the deep ball in Atlanta?! Last season, Matt Ryan only attempted a deep pass (20-plus air yards, per Next Gen Stats) on 8.9 percent of his throws -- the quarterback's lowest rate since 2016," Frelund writes. "And in the 2019 campaign, despite the fact that Atlanta's intended starting O-line played fewer than 10 percent of snaps together, Jones still managed to earn the second-most receiving first downs in the league (77). Given better health on the offensive line, the offseason addition of tight end Hayden Hurst and the intense, high-flying competition we all expect from the NFC South, Jones slightly edges out Michael Thomas in projected receiving yards. The Falcons star earns more than 1,500 receiving yards in 55.1 percent of simulations."

Frelund also notes that Jones surpassed the 99 receptions he recorded in 2019 in 58.3 percent of her projections, and Matt Ryan ranked fifth among NFL quarterbacks with a 12-percent rate of leading the league in passing yards this season.

To see the rest of Frelund's projections for the 2020 season, click here.

The Ringer: Ranking NFL pass-catching groups

If Calvin Ridley truly does take the next step in his development in Year 3, the Falcons will have the best receiver duo they've had since Julio Jones and Roddy White played together at the beginning of the last decade. Ridley is hard at work to make sure that happens, but a pass-catching unit takes more than two players to be successful.

Behind Ridley and Jones, there are a number of players who are looking to make a statement for Atlanta for a variety of different reasons. Hayden Hurst seeks to prove he can be a No. 1 tight end for a team, Russell Gage is fighting to claim the Falcons' slot receiver role for himself and Todd Gurley has the opportunity to renew his reputation as one of the game's best all-around running backs.

Perhaps it's that those players have yet to prove anything while playing for Atlanta that Danny Heifetz ranks the Falcons' group of pass catchers outside of the top 10 in a recent ranking of every team's collective pass-catching unit. Heifetz based his ranking on each team's six primary receivers, regardless of the position they play, while also factoring the total depth behind them. The Falcons come in at No. 11 and are third among the four NFC South teams.

"This one gets thin fast," Heifetz writes. "Julio Jones is among the league's best receivers on the field and the NFL's most respected players in the locker room, and Ridley may emerge as one of the NFL's top no. 2 receivers behind him this year. Offseason acquisition Hurst, a former college baseball player turned Aflac trivia question (who did Baltimore draft seven picks before Lamar Jackson?), finally gets to start this year. After those three, this team has little proven sources of receiving production. Gurley will have to show he can catch passes in Atlanta's offense after Sean McVay designed a system around him in Los Angeles."

Atlanta ranked third among all NFL teams in passing yards per game in 2019 but falling behind early in games undoubtedly played a role in that ranking as the Falcons had to throw the ball more while attempting to catch up. Still, the Falcons have been one of the most successful passing offenses with Matt Ryan at quarterback, and although he's got some new faces around him, that should against be the case in 2020.

To see the rest of Heifetz's rankings of pass-catching groups, click here.

PFF.com: Previewing Falcons 2020 season

The 2020 offseason has been largely stagnant due to COVID-19 and not much has changed around the league in the last months. Therefore, fans likely have a pretty good feel for where each team stands as training camps are set to begin later this month.

Given that football is actually back and taking place, though, it's as good a time as any to provide thorough previews for the 2020 season, which is exactly what Pro Football Focus has done. PFF writer Steve Palazzolo took a deep look at the how the Falcons stack up heading into the fall, breaking down each position group and sharing his overall thoughts on the team.

"Since losing in the 2016 Super Bowl, the Falcons have slowly declined, though there is still plenty of talent on the roster to compete in the NFC," Palazzolo writes. "They have had a knack for playing better than their record would indicate, but issues among the offensive line and secondary last season thwarted any attempt of getting back to the playoffs. The roster was strong for a few years, but the Falcons have recently been trying to stop the leaks in those key areas, and it's been difficult to keep up in a competitive NFC. However, the pieces are in place to make a playoff run. The offense can put points on the board — now, the back-seven must improve from its 24th-best coverage grade a year ago."

The expectations are high for the Falcons in 2020 after missing the playoffs the past two seasons. Atlanta approached this offseason with urgency, acquiring talent in some key areas to replace those it lost in free agency. There's a tough road ahead for the Falcons, as they have one of the league's toughest schedules, but there's talent on the roster and the team knows what's at stake.

To read all of Palazzolo's extensive preview of the Falcons ahead of the season, click here.

ESPN: Projecting future Hall of Famers for NFL teams

The Falcons have not lacked for talent during the last half of the previous decade, and they've got a few players on their roster who might have a shot at the Hall of Fame when all is said and done.

ESPN's Bill Barnwell laid out the case for those in Atlanta who are making the best case for enshrinement in Canton in a recent article, and it's not surprising that Julio Jones and Matt Ryan lead the way. Jones and Ryan both fall under the "likely" category, which Barnwell defines as players with between a 70- and 99-percent chance to make the Hall of Fame.

"Jones is likely to top 13,000 receiving yards and earn his eighth Pro Bowl nod this season, which should be enough to seal things for the superstar wideout," Barnwell writes of Jones. "He isn't going to catch Jerry Rice, but he's just under 5,000 yards behind Larry Fitzgerald, who ranks second in career receiving yards. Jones should make up some of that difference in 2020, and after Fitzgerald retires, he should be able to challenge the Cardinals great for that second spot."

Todd Gurley is just below Jones and Ryan, landing in the "in the running" category. Barnwell estimates he has between a 40- to 69-percent chance at getting in. Finally, Grady Jarrett and Alex Mack are in the "work to do" category and have between a 10- to 39-percent chance of induction.

There are a few other Falcons like Calvin Ridley and Deion Jones who are off to a good start in their careers and could be building their own case for enshrinement one day.

To see who Barnwell also views as players in the running for the Hall of Fame, click here.

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