Early Bird Report: Matt Ryan staying young at heart

Today’s Early Bird Report includes a piece on what it takes for Matt Ryan to connect with his younger teammates as well as a simulation of the entire 2019 season.

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Few professions have as great a turnover rate as playing football. While the average age of an NFL player continues to get younger, it can be increasingly difficult for some of the league’s elder statesmen to relate to their teammates.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is keenly aware of the benefits in connecting with some of the youngest players on Atlanta’s roster, a chunk of whom he is a decade older than. ESPN’s Vaughn McClure spoke with Ryan and a few other Falcons players about this very aspect of Atlanta’s locker room and wove together a pretty entertaining story.

“I always think this: If you are yourself in the locker room and you are who you are, other people can appreciate that," Ryan told McClure. "Sometimes when you’re trying a little bit too hard ... I just think the best way to relate to anybody is just being yourself. ... And I think that kind of helps cross generations."

McClure also spoke with second-year receiver Russell Gage and second-year quarterback Kurt Benkert about their experiences with Ryan, and they had some stories to share that Falcons fans might be interested in. To check those out and see the rest of McClure’s piece, click here.

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

ESPN: We simulated the entire 2019 season

It’s officially Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season, but ESPN isn’t content to let these next 17 weeks play out. They want to know what 2019 has in store, and they want to know now. The analytics group over at ESPN simulated the entire season 20,000 times using their ESPN Football Power Index. After the results were calculated, the site provided storylines for several games each week all the way through the Super Bowl.

The Falcons looked like one of the NFL’s most dominant offenses at times in the simulation, and they snagged the NFC’s final wild card spot with the 9-7 record. Atlanta swept Tampa Bay in division play and split with both Carolina and New Orleans. The Falcons also cruised to an easy 37-21 victory against the Saints on Thanksgiving Night.

“The two teams entered this rivalry game tied in the standings, but Atlanta had no problem throwing on the Saints in this 37-21 win,” ESPN notes. “For the first time in a while, New Orleans looks awfully mortal, and at 7-5, they are no sure thing for the postseason.”

To see the rest of the 2019 simulations, click here.

NFL.com: Takeaways from final preseason games

Atlanta’s preseason losing streak came to an end Thursday night with a resounding 31-12 victory against Jacksonville in the team’s final exhibition game. There were a number of standout performances, both offensively and defensively, including great showings by rookie running backs Qadree Ollison and Tony Brooks-James.

The most important performance, however, was that of Kaleb McGary. The first-round draft pick made his first appearance for the Falcons on Thursday night, and boy was he impressive. In his takeaways from Atlanta’s win, NFL.com writer Grant Gordon made sure to mention McGary.

“Though expected, Kaleb McGary making his preseason debut on Thursday was still an impressive turn of events considering the hurdle he's overcome in a short time to get back out there,” Gordon writes. “The Falcons first-round pick had been gone all of August after undergoing a heart ablation procedure. But McGary not only returned to action, he looked stellar starting at right tackle. He was quick off the ball, looked strong and was aggressive in the run game. Though running back Qadree Ollison's nine-yard touchdown run was off left tackle, McGary dominated his man on the opposite side in a one-on-one. Sure this was McGary's only preseason showing, but it was impressive enough that he could possibly garner the starting job to begin the season with Ty Sambrailo (shoulder) injured.”

To see the rest of Gordon’s takeaways from the Falcons’ final preseason game, click here.

ESPN: Predicting breakout players for 2019

The Falcons are hoping for an improved pass rush in 2019. Many of the same faces return from last year’s group, including Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley and Jack Crawford. A couple of new faces – most notably, Tyeler Davison and Adrian Clayborn – could provide a nice push, but a breakout campaign might really get things going.

ESPN’s Vaughn McClure picked McKinley to be his breakout Falcons player for 2019. The third-year end led all Falcons with seven sacks last season, and he’s got the right combination of skills to take the next jump.

“The 2017 first-round pick came to the league with a chip on his shoulder, and it's gotten bigger based on McKinley paying close attention to outside criticism,” McClure writes. “But it seems McKinley is learning to take his frustrations out on opponents rather than voicing his anger on social media. His progress and potential as a pass-rusher has head coach/defensive coordinator Dan Quinn excited.”

McKinley entered training camp fully healthy for the first time in his NFL career, and Quinn says the pass rusher looks lighter and further ahead than he was at this point last season.

To read the rest of ESPN’s predicted breakout players, click here.

NFL.com: 2019 NFL playoff predictions

After a year watching the postseason from the outside, the Falcons are preparing to make a run to the playoffs for the third time in four years. Injuries largely derailed Atlanta’s quest for three-straight playoff trips last season, but with a little more injury luck the Falcons have the talent to make the single-elimination tournament. NFL.com’s panel of experts believe Atlanta can do that. Six of the experts pegged the Falcons to earn the NFC’s No. 2 wild card spot.

“Remember, it was injuries that doomed Atlanta last season -- and the offense is still loaded, with Dirk Koetter back in charge,” NFL.com’s Judy Battista writes. “The Falcons will have to claw for this spot in a brutal division and against one of the league's toughest schedules.”

To see the rest of NFL.com’s playoff predictions, click here.

AJC: Falcons goal to reach deal with Julio before season

With just one more preseason game remaining until Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season, the Falcons remain engaged in contract talks with Julio Jones and his representatives on an extension for the All-Pro receiver.

D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to Falcons owner Arthur Blank for his thoughts on the ongoing negotiations, and he expressed hope that a deal would be struck before the start of the season.

“I would hope so, but I don’t know that,” Blank told Ledbetter. “We’ll have to let things take their course. I know that we are definitely in serious negotiations. It’s our goal and their goal as well to get it done before the start of the season.”

Jones is fresh off of a 2018 season in which he led all NFL receivers with 1,677 yards. He has yet to play this preseason, but Jones has given all indication he will be ready to go in Week 1.

To see what else Blank had to say to The AJC, click here.

ESPN: Predicting the top 100 players of 2019

Atlanta has more talent on its roster than last year’s results would indicate. Hopefully, more of the Falcons’ true talent is on display in 2019 and the team can avoid the serious injuries that haunted them in 2018.

If that happens, there are several Falcons who are capable of being among the best players in the NFL. In recent prediction of the top 100 NFL players for the 2019 season, a panel of ESPN experts were asked to rate players on how good they expected them to be this fall. After calculating the rankings, the Falcons had four players make the list.

All-Pro receiver Julio Jones led the way for Atlanta at No. 7, and the man throwing him the ball, Matt Ryan, was next on the list at No. 37. Two young defensive players showed up further down the list with linebacker Deion Jones at No. 84 and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett at No. 88.

“Jones, a one-time Pro Bowler, quickly established himself as one of the elite coverage linebackers in the game, if not the best,” ESPN’s Vaughn McClure writes of Deion Jones. “His speed helps cover up mistakes made by others. Said Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher of Jones: ‘He's already a star.' Jones should be fully healthy this season after suffering a broken foot in 2018.”

To see the rest of ESPN’s future top 100 rankings, click here.

SI.com: What we know about Luck’s decision to retire

The NFL world was rocked Saturday night when ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted that 29-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring from the game of football.

A four-time Pro Bowler, Luck was viewed as a generational talent when coming out of Stanford, and he was among the league’s best quarterbacks for stretches during his career. Luck also sustained a number of injuries and was sacked 174 times since entering the league in 2012. Those injuries appear to have played a big role in Luck’s decision to walk about, and SI.com’s Albert Breer contextualized that thinking pretty well in his piece about the retirement.

“Put yourself in Luck’s shoes for a moment: If this calf injury, which became an ankle injury (when we talked four weeks ago, he referred to it exclusively as an ankle injury), was not only creating pain, but also confusion, of what would you be reminded,” Breer asks. “Would you be able to ignore the last four years of your life? Or would you immediately be thinking, here we go again?”

The Falcons play the Colts in Week 3, but it appears the team will not prepare to face backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the wake of Luck’s announcement.

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