FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes Julio Jones' optimism for the Falcons' future and Matt Ryan's fascinating tweak to his weekly routine.
Although the Falcons' season hasn't gone the way many have hoped, there have been a number of standout individual performances in 2018. Julio Jones, as he often is, was among those who were exceptional.
Jones was named to his sixth Pro Bowl this season and has caught over 100 passes for more than 1,500 yards for the third time in his career. Unfortunately, the Falcons aren't heading to the playoffs.
Despite the lack of team success, Jones remains optimistic about the Falcons' future.
"It's about staying connected and staying together and having trust in one another," Jones said of the locker room staying positive. "Not letting outside factors and things like that creep into the locker room because they don't know what goes on, they don't know what you've been through. They just look at wins and losses and will just be like oh you're this and you're that.
"You just can't allow that to creep inside your locker, it's like a cancer. We did a really good job of that, unfortunately, like you said, on games we came up short. But we're in great spirits, we fight. We're going to fight. You're not going to come to work and not want to win. That's not who we are, that's not in our DNA."
Both the Associated Press's George Henry and The Atlanta Journal Constitution's Matt Winkeljohn wrote about Jones' optimism. To read Henry's piece, click here. To read Winkeljohn's piece, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
AJC: Bruce Irvin is getting home, but will he stay?
In addition to writing about Julio Jones, Matt Winkeljohn also discussed Bruce Irvin's future with the Falcons in a piece for the AJC. The Falcons signed Irvin prior to their Week 10 loss against the Cleveland Browns, and he has come on strong down the stretch. With Irvin, a Georgia native, set to be a free agent after the season, will he stay in Atlanta?
"Obviously, I took less money to come here now, so it's obvious that I wanted to be here," Irvin told Winkeljohn. "If that works itself out and that becomes a situation, then of course I'll come home over anything. I'm trying to worry about finishing strong, finishing on a high note, and that stuff will take care of itself."
To read the rest of Winkeljohn's piece on Irvin, click here.
ESPN: Hiring a driver has given Matt Ryan more time to prepare
Every minute of preparation counts for NFL quarterbacks, and Matt Ryan has implemented a routine that allows him to squeeze every free moment out of his schedule. In a piece for ESPN, Vaughn McClure talked with Ryan about his hiring of a driver to take him the 50 miles between his residence and the Falcons' training facilities throughout the week, allowing the Atlanta quarterback to use that time to study film.
"I felt like I had the time to do it because of where I live and the commute," Ryan told McClure. "And I felt like I could be more efficient with my time. Really, I get an hour and a half more work done every day because of it. You guys know the traffic can be a bear here in Atlanta, too, especially around the holidays."
To read McClure's thorough piece on Ryan's preparation, click here.
AJC: Falcons have talent, but no sure thing at safety
One of the pleasant surprises for the Falcons in 2018 has been the emergence of second-year defensive back Damontae Kazee. Kazee, who has been the team's starting free safety for much of the season, has the second-most interceptions in the NFL this season with six.
Alongside Kazee, however, the Falcons have seen Jordan Richards and Sherrod Neasman show competence while helping him replace starters Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, who have missed a vast majority of the season.
But Allen and Neal are expected to return to action next season, and Falcons coach Dan Quinn said they would for sure be the team's starters on the back end when they do. Given the depth Atlanta appears to have at the position, The Atlanta Journal-Constitutions Matt Winkeljohn believes the Falcons have plenty of talent but there are now some different questions to ask.
"Make no mistake, if Neal recovers on schedule from his torn ACL and Allen heals completely from his ruptured Achilles tendon, they're starters next season," Winkeljohn writes. "As Quinn said when asked about that, 'Yes.'
"But you've got to have backups, as this Falcons season has shown, and while Quinn continues to say that he sees Kazee – a college cornerback -- as a free safety or nickel back in the future, Neasman and Richards may be in the team's plans as well."
To read the rest of Winkeljohn's piece, click here.
NFL.com: Five offensive rookies in ideal spots
With the season nearly complete it's become clear that some members of this year's rookie class are in a better position than some. Sharing his thoughts on the topic, NFL.com analyst David Carr released the five rookies he believes are in the most ideal spots. Falcons rookie receiver Calvin Ridley is on that list.
"It's an ideal situation for any wide receiver to be picked by a team that already has an established WR1," Carr writes. "Yes, Ridley is talented enough to be a No. 1 receiver, but he doesn't have to be with Julio Jones taking the double teams and going against top defensive backs. Ridley has benefited from facing single coverage against CB2s and CB3s, along with having a former league MVP in Matt Ryan under center. The biggest takeaway is he's been able to learn and grow in the Falcons' offensive system without having the pressure of being the guy."
To see who else is on Carr's list, click here.
CBS Sports: Revamped ultimate roster
Prior to the start of the season, CBS Sports' Joel Corry put together the ultimate NFL roster that would adhere to salary cap numbers and other defined criteria. Now, he's back to provide an updated edition using the information gleaned during the 2018 season. Julio Jones was the only Falcons player to make the cut, but he's more than earned a spot on this roster.
"Nobody has more receiving yards than Jones' 4,392 since the start of the 2016 season," Corry writes. "He is leading the NFL with 1,539 yards on 104 receptions. Jones also topped the league in receiving yards in 2015, when he had a career-best 1,871. This is third time Jones has cracked the 1,500 receiving mark in his eight NFL seasons. He is currently the all-time leader in reception yards per game with 96.3 each outing."
To see the rest of Corry's ultimate roster, click here.
Week 17 power rankings
"Two straight wins for the Falcons, who are trying to make their 2018 campaign respectable. Despite the cruddy record, and all of the injuries, Atlanta has only been outscored by 11 points this season, which indicates that Dan Quinn's outfit will be a leading candidate to rebound in 2019. What stuck out from Sunday's win was the balance the offense struck, passing for 233 yards while piling up 194 on the ground. The offensive line performed, allowing a lone sack of Matt Ryan, while the offense as a whole averaged a robust 8.9 yards per play. Three in a row? If they can win at Tampa."
"Dan Quinn is coming back next year, but what changes are coming to his staff?"
"Non-QB MVP: WR Julio Jones. The six-time Pro Bowler's value extends beyond the numbers, although Jones currently leads the league with 1,539 receiving yards (104 catches). Jones constantly draws extra defensive attention, which opens up one-on-one opportunities for his teammates. And his incredible catch radius means Matt Ryan doesn't have to throw every ball perfectly."