Today's Early Bird Report includes five red-hot camp battle for Falcons fans to keep an eye on during the team's third preseason game.
Thanks to their appearance in the Hall of Fame Game, the Falcons already have two preseason games under their belt with three left to go. That's a lot of evaluation opportunities for the coaching staff, and a number of camp battles will continue on Thursday night against the New York Jets.
With Atlanta's third preseason game just a day away, D. Orlando Ledbetter provided his list of five camp battles to watch when the Falcons take on the Jets for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
First on his list is a combination of the left guard and right tackle competitions, where Jamon Brown and Ty Sambrailo have an early lead after injuries to James Carpenter and Kaleb McGary. Next, Ledbetter lists the battle for the return job between Marcus Green, Kenjon Barner and Olamide Zaccheaus. The third spot belongs to the defensive line rotation, where a number of players are duking it out. The fourth battle is quite possibly the most intense of the preseason, and that is between the backup running backs.
"Brian Hill has had a strong camp and Barner made a big play against the Dolphins, but is injured," Ledbetter writes. "Ito Smith has been steady. Rookie Qadree Ollison had a nice 15-yard touchdown against the Dolphins."
The last battle on Ledbetter's list involves the backup safety spots. Sharrod Neasman and Parker Baldwin seem to be getting a long look at those jobs.
To read Ledbetter's notes on each camp battle for the Falcons, click here.
NFL.com: Each NFL team's offensive engine
EBR has been heavy on Julio Jones recently, but that's only because he's such dominant player that national outlets gravitate towards writing about him. That has again turned out to be the case.
In a recent piece highlighting which player is the "engine" for each NFL offense, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks provided a great explanation for why Jones is such a valuable player.
"When I recently spoke to an NFL defensive coordinator about Jones and his playmaking skills, he described the veteran pass catcher as "special" talent and told me that you can't really cover him with a single defender," Brooks writes. "In addition, the defensive coordinator stressed that Julio tilts the coverage and creates opportunities for Atlanta's other skill players to have room to operate on the perimeter. From Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu feasting off single coverage on the outside to Devonta Freeman seeing fewer "plus-one" defensive fronts, the presence of No. 11 makes life easier for everyone in a Falcons uniform."
Yes, there are other receivers in the league who command extra attention, but perhaps nobody warps a defense in the way that Jones does. He simply cannot be left alone with a single player, which is a massive benefit to the rest of Atlanta's offense.
To see which other players are their team's offensive engines, click here.
NFL.com: Ranking the best offenses heading into 2019
Few teams in the league boast as daunting a set of skill players as the Falcons. Headlined by Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, Atlanta has elite talent and plenty of depth at receiver, running back and tight end. Oh, and they also have former NFL MVP Matt Ryan getting them the ball.
NFL.com columnist Adam Schein seems to be very high on what this offense can accomplish in the upcoming season, and he ranks them as the top unit in the league heading into 2019.
"Is there a better receiving trio in the NFL today than Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu? Jones just became the first player in NFL history to log five straight seasons of 1,400-plus receiving yards, while Ridley scored 10 touchdowns in his rookie campaign," Schein writes. "Sanu's the jack of all trades, an ideal WR3 who can get the tough yards, make the crucial block -- and even throw the key pass. Devonta Freeman, the highly paid running back who's missed 16 games over the past two seasons, is healthy again, having participated in the entire offseason program. This is no small thing: In his last two healthy campaigns of 2015 and '16, Freeman averaged 1,068 rushing yards, 64 catches and 14 total touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl in each season. Lastly, 24-year-old tight end Austin Hooper is fresh off his first Pro Bowl season."
There will likely be some fans of other teams who take umbrage with the Falcons earning the top spot, and they probably could make a pretty good case. But if Atlanta's offense plays up to its potential this season, it will justify this No. 1 ranking.
To see the rest of Schein's list, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
NFL.com: Julio ranked No. 9 in 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.
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.