Early Bird Report: Julio Jones among NFL's most indispensable players

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today’s Early Bird Report includes thoughts on how explosive the Falcons’ offense can be as well as Julio Jones’ place among indispensable offensive weapons.

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For much of Matt Ryan’s tenure with the Falcons, Atlanta has boasted a noteworthy offensive attack. Their high level of play has persisted despite five changes at the Falcons’ offensive coordinator position, including their most recent hire of Dirk Koetter.

In Koetter, Ryan has a high level of familiarity and comfort, which should help the offense remain among the most dynamic in the NFL. But in a recent ESPN article the question was asked concerning whether or not the Falcons could once again reach their 2016 offensive levels, when they averaged 33.8 points per game.

“Ryan's familiarity with Koetter, who is back for his second stint as offensive coordinator, should help the offense flow a little better than last season,” ESPN Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure writes. “Having Mike Mularkey as the tight-ends coach, with his history for taking a smash-mouth approach, should be an asset in short-yardage, goal-line situations. If (Julio) Jones and (Devonta) Freeman, who have dealt with nagging injuries over their careers, remain healthy, and if the rebuilt offensive line, with rookie first-rounders Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, stands strong, the Falcons should push for 30 points per game. Then the question becomes, will Dan Quinn's defense keep opposing offenses out of the end zone?”

To see the biggest questions facing the other NFL teams, click here.

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

NFL.com: The NFL’s most indispensable offensive players

The NFL continually becomes a league driven by great offenses and elite athletes that pose immense problems for defenses. Atlanta has one of the NFL’s best offensive game-breakers in Julio Jones, who clocked it at the No. 5 spot on NFL.com columnist Adam Schein’s ranking of the nine most indispensable offensive players for the 2019 season.

“The Falcons had a down season in 2018, finishing below .500 for the first time in Dan Quinn's tenure,” Schein writes. “But don't blame Julio, who eclipsed 1,400 receiving yards for the fifth straight year (hauling in 113 balls for 1,677 yards). Through the years, some folks have dwelled on the freakish athlete's low touchdown totals, but A) that's more on Atlanta's approach in the red zone and B) Jones notched a respectable eight scores last season. And look for Julio's numbers to be even more eye-popping this fall, with Dirk Koetter back calling the plays.”

To read the rest of Schein’s thoughts on Jones as well as the rest of his list, click here.

NFL.com: Memorable NFL stadium sendoffs

Before the excitement of unveiling a world-class facility like Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there was the final farewell to the Georgia Dome, which had been the Falcons’ home for 25 years.

Although Atlanta fans witnessed some heartbreaking moments in the Georgia Dome, the sendoff was nothing short of spectacular. NFL.com writer Jeremy Bergman recently ranked the top 10 stadium farewells in NFL history, and he has the Georgia Dome fairly high on his list at No. 4.

“Let's get happy for a hot sec, shall we?” Bergman writes. “Some stadium sendoffs are fun, like Atlanta's closing of the Georgia Dome. That the Dome was not regarded as one of the NFL's premier venues or that the game was a blowout/shutout at halftime doesn't diminish the memory of this one. After all, a happy ending was no sure thing. Atlanta was avenging some Dome demons: The top-seeded Falcons were throttled in the 2010 Divisional Round by Aaron Rodgers' Packers, and in Atlanta's last NFC Championship Game appearance, it fell to the visiting 49ers after taking a 10-point lead into halftime. But these Falcons came out of the gates on fire, taking a 24-point lead into halftime, and salted fears of a meltdown away on their first drive out of halftime, when Jones took a crosser 73 yards to paydirt. Pay no mind to the Falcons' historic collapse in the Super Bowl two weeks later. Remember them, and their fans, as they were: ‘A buzz saw.’”

The Georgia Dome was home to some memorable moments such as Matt Ryan’s first touchdown pass and Jamal Anderson’s Dirty Bird, as well as some all-time great players like Tony Gonzalez and Deion Sanders. It won’t be forgotten soon.

To see the rest of Bergman’s list of stadium sendoffs, click here.

CBS Sports: Ranking NFL divisions by running backs

Devonta Freeman has proven he’s a dynamic and imposing running back when on the field, which the Falcons are hoping will be the case for all of the 2019 season. But he’s not the only talented runner in the NFC South, which is home to some of the top young running backs in the league.

CBS Sports’ Sean Wagner-McGough ranked each NFL division by the talent at the running back position and the NFC South fared well. The division ranked third on his list, and it was the Falcons’ group that helped land it there.

“The Falcons' backfield is good enough to push the NFC South over the AFC West,” Wagner-McGough writes. “Devonta Freeman carries some very real injury concerns with him into the upcoming season, and the Falcons' backfield took a hit when Tevin Coleman signed with the 49ers, but if Freeman can stay healthy, the Falcons will have a RB1 who averaged 1,452.3 yards and 11.7 touchdowns from scrimmage per season from 2015-17.”

To see the rest of Wagner-McGough’s backfield rankings for the NFL’s divisions, click here.

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ESPN: The surprise offseason standout for all 32 teams

Mandatory minicamps have wrapped up around the league, and they provided a first look at teams and players ahead of the 2019 season. Some players impressed more than others, but there were notable standouts on each team. With the NFL on vacation for the next month, ESPN writers shared their surprise standout for each club following minicamp. Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure pegged second-year receiver Russell Gage as Atlanta’s surprise standout.

“The second-year wide receiver has received more practice reps at the X receiver spot this offseason with Julio Jones (foot) observing,” McClure writes. “Gage, a potential special-teams ace, looks comfortable running routes and has shown nice concentration on catches. ‘He can play more than one spot,’ coach Dan Quinn said. ‘He can now add into some of those roles as Julio's backup. He can play X and inside. He's got movement for a slot. ... Once you can learn more than one position, obviously the more opps you can [get] to go play.’”

To see the other standout players from around the league, click here.

SI.com: The NFL’s All-over-30 team

Young players are more important than ever in today’s NFL, given the value of rookie contracts, but it’s important to have quality veterans surrounding them. The Falcons have a strong blend of youth and experience on their roster, including two players who Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit selected for his all-over-30 team.

Julio Jones was selected as the top receiver on Benoit’s team, and he is flanked by Antonio Brown and Julian Edelman. That’s quite a receiving trio. At center, Alex Mack was selected to back up Jason Kelce.

“Some might believe these are the best two centers in football, regardless of age,” Benoit writes. “It almost feels wasteful having them here because their main value is their football IQ, and that’s not quite as vital for us, since Brady sets and adjusts protections himself—but surplus intelligence in your center-QB exchange is a good problem to have. Kelce and Mack are both outside zone blockers, relying on quickness much more than strength.”

While quarterback Matt Ryan is certainly deserving of a spot on Benoit’s list, he was passed over in favor of Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Former Falcons cornerback Robert Alford was also included on Benoit’s team.

To see the rest of Benoit’s All-over-30 team, which he believes would beat a team comprised of the top players under 30, click here.

CBS Sports: Ranking NFL divisions by quarterback play

Quarterback play has become a driver for success in the NFL, and the Falcons are in a division filled with talent at the position. In CBS Sports’ Sean Wagner-McGough’s opinion, the NFC South has the best collection of quarterback talent in the league.

“Drew Brees is a top-five quarterback right now and one of the best quarterbacks of all time,” Wagner-McGough writes. “Matt Ryan is still underappreciated. It kinda flew under the radar that he threw for 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns, and seven interceptions last season. When healthy, Cam Newton is a top-10 quarterback and his stats from last season were significantly dampened by his shoulder injury, which prevented him from driving the ball downfield as the season wore on. Jameis Winston is the worst quarterback of the group, but there's a chance he could form a lethal combination with Bruce Arians and his deep-passing game. He's likely to remain a flawed quarterback, but he's the kind of flawed quarterback who can still post big numbers.”

The NFC South earned the top spot on his list, just ahead of the AFC West, which features Patrick Mahomes and Phillip Rivers. Wagner-McGough’s reasoning is that Brees, Ryan and Newton form an elite trio with Winston being capable of big production at times; that combination trumps the overall collection of talent in any other division.

To see the rest of Wagner-McGough’s rankings, click here.

CBS Sports: NFC South 2019 offseason grades

Atlanta missed the postseason for the first time since 2016 last year, but the Falcons possess enough talent to make a return trip in 2019. Staying healthy will be a primary factor in whether that can happen, but the Falcons took several steps to sure up areas that were exposed by injuries last season.

Many of Atlanta’s offseason moves were on the offensive side of the ball, particularly on the offensive line. CBS Sports’ Ryan Wilson liked the moves the Falcons made in recent months, and he gave the team a “B” for their offseason approach.

“New faces on offense include offensive linemen James Carpenter and Jamon Grown, running back Kenjon Barner and tight end Luke Stocker, all signed as free agents,” Wilson writes. “But it's what the Falcons did early in the 2019 NFL Draft that could have the biggest impact on this offense: The team took guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick and traded back into Round 1 to grab right tackle Kaleb McGary at No. 31. The expectation is the both could begin the season as starters, and if Carpenter also wins the job, 60 percent of the offensive line could feature new faces.”

To read what else Wilson had to say about the Falcons’ offseason as well as his opinion on the rest of the NFC South, click here.

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