Early Bird Report: For Keith Smith the loss of a cousin due to COVID-19 'puts life into perspective'

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Falcons fullback Keith Smith was one of the few members of the organization to land on the team's reserve/COVID-19 list this offseason. He revealed Thursday evening that he did indeed test positive for the disease.

Smith wasn't the only member of his family to contract the virus, however, but he was fortunate enough to recover. His cousin wasn't.

"Mike was about my age," Smith said. "I think he was 30 or 31. But just he … I think he had (an underlying condition), which didn't help with this situation. It was tough to see that. He fought it for three weeks. He was on the ventilator and everything.

"[He] actually found out that his wife was pregnant, and they had a baby on the way. It was real heartbreaking and sad to be so close to something so serious. It puts life into perspective. It just makes you cherish what you have."

Smith's cousin, Michael Neazer, died on July 17, just shortly after he and his wife discovered they were having a child. The Falcons fullback first went on the reserve/COVID-19 list on July 29, and he was activated from that list on Aug. 15.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Smith remained engaged while away from the team and that he was worked in slowly upon returning to practices.

"He's a real pro's pro," Quinn said of Smith. "He didn't miss a beat when he came down. We kind of worked him back into shape. We didn't just say, 'Ok, go. Take all of the reps,' but he's really nailed it and we've tried to use him in all of the unique ways that we have."

NFL's 40 most compelling people for 2020

Ahead of the 2020 season, ESPN's Bill Barnwell listed the 40 people he believes will be the most compelling to watch this fall. These are people who range from established superstars to rookies to head coaches, but they are all individuals who could shape the story of this season. There's one member of the Falcons on Barnwell's list, but it might not be who you expect. Coming in at No. 39 on the list is second-year tackle Kaleb McGary.

"You probably didn't see McGary coming on this list," Barnwell writes. "I might be the only one fascinated by the former Washington product. In the 2019 draft, though, the Falcons decided against using their first-round pick on a player to help out their ailing defense and used the 14th pick on offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom. At the end of the round, the Falcons then traded up to draft McGary. Given how Matt Ryan's dominant 2016 season came behind a fully healthy and dominant offensive line, you can figure that the Falcons thought they might be able to just win shootout after shootout if they upgraded their line.

"It didn't go well. The defense was a mess for most of the season. Lindstrom broke his foot and missed 11 games. McGary was healthy for all 16 games, but ESPN's pass block win rate analysis ranked him 166th out of 171 qualifying offensive linemen. The right tackle was assigned the blame for a league-high 18 sacks, two more than any other player. McGary has a great story as someone who has overcome multiple heart procedures to make it to the pros, but the Falcons made a big bet on their right tackle. I'm rooting for him, but he has a lot to prove in 2020."

Patriots reportedly release Mohamed Sanu

The New England Patriots will release wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, according to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport. The former Falcons receiver was traded to the Patriots midway through the 2019 season for a second-round pick. Atlanta then sent that second-round pick and a fifth-round pick to Baltimore for tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick, which the Falcons used to select safety Jaylinn Hawkins in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Ranking all 32 NFL defenses

There's no question that the Falcons defense will need to improve if the team is to make a serious push at the playoffs in 2020. If the defense does take a jump, it will likely land much higher on Pro Football Focus's ranking of NFL defenses heading into the 2021 season than it is on the current iteration of that list. Heading into the fall, PFF views the Falcons as having the 28th-best defense in the league.

"Atlanta has one of the more underappreciated interior defensive linemen in the NFL in Grady Jarrett. He's produced back-to-back single-season PFF grades above 90.0, forming a two-year grade that is the fourth-best at the position. In addition to Jarrett, linebacker Deion Jones is a standout on this defense — he has proven year after year that he has some of the best coverage ability at the position. His coverage grade since entering the league in 2016 trails only Luke Kuechly and Lavonte David. As great as those two players are for Atlanta, they can't make up for the shortcomings of the secondary.

"The Falcons' cornerbacks and safeties combined to produce the third-worst team coverage grade a season ago, and the one player who prevented them from being last is no longer on the team (Desmond Trufant). The Falcons did make a great late signing for minimal cost in slot corner Darqueze Dennard, but there's reasonable concern elsewhere. A (hopefully) healthy Keanu Neal will help matters some if he can get back to his rookie form when he was incredibly productive in coverage (sixth in 2016 in coverage grade)."

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