Early Bird Report: Laying out Falcons' potential path to Super Bowl

The top Falcons headlines from around the country 

Each NFL season there are a handful of surprise teams who seemingly come out of nowhere to reach the postseason. About half of the playoff teams from the previous year fail to reach the NFL's second season the following year, and it wouldn't be shocking to see a team like the Falcons fill one of their places.

On paper, the Falcons at least have the talent to make a push for the postseason. They face a tough schedule and will need an improvement in performance from some key players this fall, but there is a path there. Heck, there's even a path for the Falcons to reach the Super Bowl, which Bill Barnwell outlined in a piece for ESPN.

"This year's Falcons are right around where that 2016 team was before it broke out," Barnwell writes. "With five first-rounders on their offensive line and 10 on offense altogether, the Falcons could hope for an offensive resurgence with Ryan, who would need a return to form from running back Todd Gurley and a breakout year from tight end Hayden Hurst. That previous Falcons team got a huge season from Vic Beasley Jr., and with Beasley now in Tennessee, coach Dan Quinn could rely upon another former Ram in pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. as a possible NFL sack leader."

While Barnwell can take time to envision how each team can reach the NFL's biggest game, the Falcons are currently focused on their Week 1 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. It will be the first chance for fans to see what the 2020 iteration of this team looks like, and the Falcons' first step towards what they hope will be a memorable season.

NFL players to watch in Week 1

For the first time since the Super Bowl ended in February, we can talk about on-field matchups for NFL teams. Pro Football Focus dedicated an entire article detailing the top players to watch for each game around the league on Sunday. In Atlanta's game against Seattle, PFF's Ben Linsey says he's going to keep a close eye on the Falcons' young corners against the Seahawks' wide receivers, new Seattle safety Jamal Adams and Atlanta's new pass rusher, Dante Fowler.

"Fowler will be an interesting player to watch in Atlanta this season," Linsey writes. "He has improved in each of his four NFL seasons, but that improvement has only gotten him to a 72.0 PFF grade in 2019. His 67 pressures and 11.5 sacks both stick out as impressive marks, but over 50% of his pressures in 2019 were labeled as "clean-up" or "unblocked, meaning it may be harder for him to repeat that performance in 2020. Still, Fowler profiles as a nice upgrade over what Atlanta got from Vic Beasley Jr. last season, and he has a soft matchup in this one against Seattle's offensive line, particularly if lined up over right tackle."

Deion Jones ready for leadership role as team captain

Entering his fifth NFL season, linebacker Deion Jones has been named a team captain for the first time in his career. The former Pro Bowler is undoubtedly one of the most important players on Atlanta's defense, and now he will be one of the most important individuals within the team's locker room. In a piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Butt wrote in greater detail about Jones preparing for his first season as a team captain and why coach Dan Quinn felt it fitting to name his linebacker one of the Falcons' leaders.

"I would say really it factored into the offseason," Quinn said. "From the time the guys started together going through things, even when the rookies were added, him talking the extra time to make sure he was leading a guy like Mykal [Walker], leading him up. Those moments kind of painted the things that I was looking for from brotherhood, the things I was looking for from the football side to teach it. That's really, there were moments like that, and then it just really continued on when we came back into camp for veterans on the 28th. I saw it start in the offseason with his leadership and staying [online] when the rookies were to get extra [teaching]. Those moments really told me he's ready for a bigger leadership role on the team and he's certainly earned it."

Week 1 NFL power rankings

With football set to return, NFL.com released its Week 1 power rankings. The Falcons fall right near the middle of the pack, landing at No. 18 in the rankings. They are the third-highest ranked team in the NFC South. The New Orleans Saints hold the No. 4 spot and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sit at No. 13.

"It's hard to say if the Todd Gurley experiment will work in Atlanta, but you still feel confident in a Matt Ryan-led Falcons offense putting up enough points to win most Sundays," Dan Hanzus writes. "The pressure is on the defense to level up and get the Birds back in the postseason after consecutive dark Januarys. Pass rush was a particular weakness in 2019, when Atlanta had the second-fewest sacks in the NFL. Enter Dante Fowler Jr., the free-agent acquisition who hopes to become the new version of the old Vic Beasley. Last year, Fowler posted the second-most sacks on the Rams (11.5) and added 16 tackles for loss. That's exactly what the Falcons need."

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