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Early Bird Report: Former Falcons defensive end John Zook dies at 72


Former Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Zook died Saturday at the age of 72 after a long battle with cancer, according to a report by Steve Hummer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Zook played for seven seasons with the Falcons from 1969-75, pairing with Hall of Fame defensive end Claude Humphrey to give Atlanta a dependable pass rush off the edge. The two defensive ends were named to the Pro Bowl after the 1973 season, when the Falcons won a franchise-best nine games.


"The most fun I had the whole time I played football was the time John and I had that (1973) season when we were both selected to the Pro Bowl," Humphrey told Hummer. "We had it down pat, man, I tell you. We figured out we were better together than we were individually."

Zook's time with the Falcons came prior to the era when sacks became an officially chronicled statistic, but, like Humphrey, those who saw Zook play can attest to how great of a defender he was. Among the stats that are attributed to Zook, however, is the first safety in Falcons franchise history, which occurred in 1971.

Hummer wrote a fitting tribute to Zook and his time with the Falcons, which you can read here.

Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today: State of the Falcons franchise

After back-to-back 7-9 finishes, the Falcons are all in on making a return trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Atlanta retained a majority of its coaching staff, including head coach Dan Quinn and all three coordinators from the end of the 2019 season, and the organization is betting that continuity will pay off.

In the midst of the offseason, writer Adam Rank took a look at the state of the Falcons franchise heading into the 2020 season. It's a pretty thorough dive into the team, and worth a read in its entirety. Rank's piece is broken down into a variety of sections, including one about the important players for the upcoming season. In that section, he names Calvin Ridley as his choice for this year's breakout star.

"A lot of people (especially me, from a selfish fantasy perspective) would love to see Ridley make a Chris Godwin-like leap in his third NFL season," Ranks writes. "Consider these numbers (all of which, of course, come from Next Gen Stats): Ridley was 16th in catch percentage last year (67.7%, among receivers with 50-plus targets), but sixth in catch percentage above expectation (59.0). Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 113.5 when targeting him, 12th in the NFL. Julio can still dominate like he does, but it feels like Ridley's time to take over."

There's a lot of good information in Rank's article, and it's something any Falcons fan would like enjoy as a primer for the upcoming year. You can read the entire piece, here.

ESPN: NFL cancels joint practices for training camp

Earlier this offseason, Falcons coach Dan Quinn confirmed that the team had discussed holding joint practices during training camp with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. Given travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, however, he did not know whether those discussions would be finalized.

According to ESPN reporter David Newton, the NFL sent a memo to all 32 teams on Tuesday stating that no joint practices will be held in 2020. This announcement puts an end to any plans the Falcons might have had for an inter-squad scrimmage during training camp.

"The NFLPA was strongly in favor of these two decisions, which were made to limit exposure risks by avoiding the need for clubs to clean and maintain two facilities, by limiting the need for players and club staffs to travel to another location (sometimes located at a considerable distance from the home facility), and by limiting travel and contact between players on different clubs in the context of joint practices," Goodell said in the memo, according to Newton’s report. "These steps are being taken for the 2020 preseason to address the current conditions and are not expected to be in place in 2021."

The Falcons have not previously participated in joint practices under Quinn, preferring to compete amongst themselves. This new approach was something Quinn had hinted at during the team's end-of-season press conference following Atlanta's second-straight 7-9 finish. NFL's 10 most explosive runners

There's been a lot of talk this offseason about Todd Gurley’s health and how much the Falcons will be able to get out of the former All-Pro running back, but there are a few stats from last season that indicate he still has a bit left in the tank.

Using advanced metrics, writer Nick Shook ranked the 10 most explosive runners in the NFL last season. He used a variety of criteria for this list, looking at the total number of 10-plus-yard runs a player had, the percentage of his carries that went for 10 yards or more and the percentage of carries in which a player reached a speed of 15 miles per hour.

Based on that data, Shook determined that Gurley was the eighth-most explosive runner in the league last season, even ranking ahead of Panthers star Christian McCaffrey.

"Here's where the numbers are peculiar," Shook writes. "Even if we don't quite agree with this result (based on the recent events that saw Gurley fall out of favor in L.A.), Gurley does indeed meet the criteria to land on this list, which suggests that, even during his down year, he was still among the league's more explosive runners. Only one of Gurley's 10 fastest touches over the last two seasons came in 2019, yet he still managed to reach or exceed 15 mph on nearly 20 percent of his 223 attempts. His 21 runs of 10-plus yards show he can still gain significant yards, even if he hasn't been the home-run hitter he once was. Will we see him here again in 2020 as a member of the Falcons? Unlikely, but he's still got at least some juice, or he did in 2019."

Shook seems a little reticent about Gurley's future upside, but the numbers indicate that the Falcons' newest running back still has enough burst to give defenses some headaches. Against Atlanta, defenses might not be able to stack the box consistently for fear of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley beating them outside.

To see the rest of Shook's list, click here.

CBSSports: Teams with five most difficult stretches

We already know the Falcons have one of the toughest schedules in the league, and that includes one of the hardest stretches that any team will have to face in 2020. CBSSports write John Breech believes Atlanta's final three-game run, in which they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice with a trip to Kansas City sandwiched in between, is the second-hardest stretch that any team will have this season.

"If the Falcons want to make the postseason in 2020, they better have a playoff berth wrapped up by the time Week 14 ends, because there's a good chance that things are going to get ugly for Atlanta starting right around that point," Breech writes. "Over the final three weeks of the season, the Falcons will be facing Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and then Tom Brady again. That's definitely a nightmare stretch for a team that struggled to stop the pass last year. The good news for the Falcons is that they've dominated the Buccaneers over the past few years, winning six of their past seven against Tampa. However, that streak came against Jameis Winston, who's not going to be around to hand the Falcons free wins, like he did in Week 17 last season when he threw an overtime pick-six that allowed Atlanta to win."

That stretch could actually be widened a little bit, because the second half of the Falcons' schedule is no joke. With two games against the Saints, two against the Buccaneers and three AFC matchups, Atlanta will have to be playing its best football after the bye week.

To see the rest of Breech's list of tough NFL stretches, click here.

2020 schedule image3

2020 Falcons Schedule

Click below to view the full schedule and learn more about ticket options for the 2020 season.

CBSSports: Ranking NFL offensive triplets

With Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in place, the Atlanta Falcons already had elite options at two of the three key offensive skill positions. By signing Todd Gurley this offseason to take over for Devonta Freeman, the Falcons solidified the third part of that trio, and CBSSports writer Jared Dubin likes the group they've assembled.

In a recent ranking of the NFL's best offensive trios – an area the Falcons have often ranked highly over the past several seasons – Atlanta was right up there near the top. The Falcons were tied for sixth with the Green Bay Packers, boasting an aggregate grade of 8.30. Dubin graded each piece of the offensive trio on a scale of 1-10, and he gave the quarterback a higher weight than the other two positions.

Ryan earned an eight from Dubin, Gurley received a six and Jones received a perfect 10. Here's what Dubin had to say about the Falcons:

"Ryan is remarkably durable, remarkably productive, and until last season, consistently above average across the board. He took a step backward last season, falling short of league averages in yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and passer rating, each for the first time since 2013. …

"Gurley was just cut by the Rams, so even though he was slightly more effective last season than popular consensus would have you believe, we can't justify giving him too high a grade. Jones is arguably the best wideout in football, more efficient on a per-route basis than just about everybody in the league, just about every year. He's also now got 14 touchdowns across the past two seasons, so hopefully we can dispel with the silly notion that he simply cannot score."

Atlanta doesn't just boast a formidable trio, offensively. Calvin Ridley has emerged as one of the top young receivers in the NFL in just two seasons, and the Falcons have high hopes that tight end Hayden Hurst can be an effective option for Ryan in his first season.

To see the rest of Dubin's offensive trio rankings, click here.

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