The offensive line is undoubtedly one of the most important position groups for the Atlanta Falcons in 2020. For Atlanta to reach its offensive potential, the play in the trenches must improve.
Pro Football Focus highlighted just how much improvement will be needed in a recent ranking of all 32 offensive line units in the NFL. The Falcons ranked 24th in the league up front in 2019, but there are reasons to believe they can improve this fall.
"After years as one of the most stable units in the league, Atlanta's offensive line has regressed, and they finished 24th in our final 2019 rankings," PFF's Steve Palazzolo writes. "The good news is that Atlanta still has strong pillars up front in left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack, who are still two of the league's best at their respective positions. Matthews is one of the best zone blockers in the league (89th percentile over the last two years), while Mack has ranked second, fourth and ninth among centers over the last three seasons.
"Questions abound beyond that, but there is hope. The Falcons invested two first-round picks in right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary in 2019, but Lindstrom only saw the field for 309 snaps and graded at 66.6 overall, while McGary struggled to a 53.0 overall grade that ranked 79th out of 89 qualifying tackles."
Improvement from Lindstrom and McGary would be the quickest way for the Falcons' offensive line to take a step forward. Third-round pick Matt Hennessy is also an intriguing player to keep an eye on at the left guard spot. Atlanta invested heavily in its offensive line last offseason, and it took steps to bolster its skill positions this year. For the Falcons to get the most out of their talented weapons, their offensive line needs to perform.
To see the rest of PFF's offensive line rankings and Palazzolo's thoughts on the Falcons, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
NFL.com: Top five receivers in NFL
So much of this time of year is devoted to talking about the big-name players on each NFL roster, but, you know what, if you're Julio Jones, you've earned it. The All-Pro receiver has been on an absolute tear over the last half of the decade, and he deserves every bit of attention he gets.
NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks also doesn't mind heaping the praise on Jones, naming him the best receiver in the game today in a recent article.
"The 10th-year pro is the prototype at the position: an explosive track athlete with A+ size and strength," Brooks writes. "Jones reached 12,000 receiving yards quicker than any pass catcher in NFL history (125 games) -- yes, including Jerry Rice (142). He also boasts the highest career average in receiving yards per game in NFL history (96.2), logging 1,300-plus yards in each of the past six seasons. As a dynamic route runner with strong hands and rugged running skills, Jones remains the gold standard at the position."
Jones is at the top of a list of truly elite NFL receivers in Brooks's mind. Notably, three of the five players on the list hail from the NFC South, which figures to be an extremely difficult division in 2020.
To see the rest of Brooks's list, click here.
AJC: Raheem Morris's uplifting coaching summit
Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris recently attended the third-annual NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit, which was conducted virtually this offseason.
The summit consisted of a series of panels, led by current and former NFL coaches as well as coaches from the college ranks, which were aimed at improving the league's diversity and ability to develop quality leaders.
"I was just an attendee," Morris told D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "To go and be a part of the breakout sessions, get answers to the questions. They talked to me about my head coaching experience. The ability to go back, the changes, what's now and what's next. I talked to the group about that."
Morris, a former NFL head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has been one of the Falcons' top assistant coaches since arriving in Atlanta with Dan Quinn in 2015. Now, he's been tasked with leading the Falcons' defense since sparking a dramatic turnaround in the unit during the second half of the 2019 season.
After becoming a head coach at the age of just 32, Morris told Ledbetter that he's grown a lot from that experience and continues to develop as a coach in this league. The 2020 season provides another chance for Morris to take charge of a unit and demonstrate all that he has learned.
To read the rest of Ledbetter's story on Morris's experience at the NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit, click here.
ESPN: Which WR is best bet to lead NFL in yards?
Julio Jones has been among the best receivers in the NFL for quite a while now, and there's no reason to believe that will change in 2020. Coming off of a season in which he finished second in the league with 1,394 yards despite missing a game, Jones should be right up there in the mix to lead the league in that category next season.
In fact, Joe Fortenbaugh on ESPN's "Daily Wager" made Jones his pick to be the NFL leading receiver. Jones is currently being given 7-1 odds by Caesars Sportsbook to achieve that feat, which Fortenbaugh believes is better odds than a player like DeAndre Hopkins, who stands at 9-1.
"He's consistent as rain in the Amazon, based on what you see each and every year from this dude" Fortenbaugh says. "Top two in receiving yards in five straight seasons, and over the last six years he's averaged 1,564 receiving yards. He's got Matt Ryan as his quarterback, who – let's be honest, maybe he's not an elite quarterback. You can be on the fence however you want with Matt Ryan – but he's missed one game in the last ten years. These guys have been working together forever, they might have one of the most solid rapports in the National Football League."
Ryan and Jones both missed one game in 2019, the Falcons first working with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, yet the former managed to lead the NFL in completions while the latter was second in receiving yards. If they continue to play the way we've seen throughout their careers, Fortenbaugh may have made a smart bet.
To see the rest of the conversation on ESPN's "Daily Wager," click here.
ESPN: NFC South all-decade MVPs
The past decade has been one of great change in the NFL. Quarterback play and passing offenses have come to define the league, while defenses have gotten smaller and fast to adjust to this new style of play. Some players have spanned this philosophical gap, however, dominating the decade from beginning to end.
With the 2010s in the rearview, ESPN writers have named the player of the decade for each NFL team and well as an entire all-decade team for each division. For the Falcons, there were two clear candidates, but it was wide receiver Julio Jones who ultimately got the nod over quarterback Matt Ryan, the honorable mention for Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure.
"Jones, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, has been a consistent high-level performer and unstoppable force," McClure writes. "Jones, 31, has recorded six straight seasons of at least 80 catches and 1,300 receiving yards. His current career average of 96.2 receiving yards per game is the best such mark in NFL history. The seven-time Pro Bowler has 797 career catches on 1,258 targets for 12,125 receiving yards and 57 touchdowns. Jones has 4,019 career yards after the catch. 'He's probably the overall best receiver in the NFL, as far as size and speed and being able to catch the ball and go and getting it vertical,' cornerback Joe Haden once said of Jones. The best part of it all is that Jones puts up those numbers despite often drawing added coverage, which opens up opportunities for his teammates to win their one-on-one matchups."
Surprisingly, Jones was the only Falcons offensive player to make ESPN's NFC South all-decade team. Atlanta did have two defensive make the cut, though, with cornerback Desmond Trufant and safety William Moore earning spots. Kicker returner Devin Hester and kicker Matt Bryant were also selected for spots on special teams.
To see the entirety of ESPN's NFC South all-decade team as well as McClure's thoughts on Ryan as Atlanta's honorable mention, click here.
NFL.com: Rankings NFL divisions by QBs
With the addition of Tom Brady, the NFC South is now home to three of the best quarterbacks of the last decade-plus. Matt Ryan and Drew Brees have long had some iconic clashes in one of the league's top rivalries, and it will be exciting to see how Brady factors into the division mix with a really good Tampa Bay team behind him.
NFL.com columnist Adam Schein also views the NFC South as the top quarterback division in the league, and he doesn't think it's particularly close. He lays out his case for each quarterback's situation, which is too long to put here in its entirety, but here's what he has to say about Ryan and the Falcons:
"Although Ryan has a league MVP under his belt, the Falcons QB inexplicably remains underrated. Guy's a stud, still squarely in the prime of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. With the dynamic duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley out wide, Ryan will enjoy another season of domination."
The Falcons went 4-2 against NFC South teams in 2019, and they will need to have similar success this year if they hope to achieve their goal of reaching the postseason for the third time under Dan Quinn. With late-season games against the Buccaneers and Saints, the Falcons will need to be peaking at the right time ahead of matchups with two of the best quarterbacks in the league.
To see the rest of Schein's thoughts on the NFC South and his full division rankings, click here.