FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes a ranking of each division based on quarterback play as well as a grading of the Falcons' offseason.
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.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
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.
ESPN: Why pass blocking matters more than pass rushing
It's no small secret the Falcons invested heavily in their offensive line this offseason. In addition to adding veteran guards James Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Adam Gettis, Atlanta also used two first-round draft picks on Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary.
While there was a section of the fan base clamoring for the Falcons to address the defensive line, adding one of the top-tier prospects in a loaded class, Atlanta may have taken a wiser approach. ESPN analytics expert Seth Walder unveiled a piece explaining why good pass blocking matters more to a team's success than a good pass rush.
Walder's piece relies pretty heavily on statistics, and it may be confusing initially, but the data is gathered via player tracking data from chips inserted in every NFL player's shoulder pads. The summation of the data is that winning in pass protection leads more to a team's overall success than winning as a rusher.
"In my opinion, on the offensive line, it's more critical to avoid a particularly poor weak blocker than to have a particularly strong best blocker," Walder writes. "Think of pass protection like a chain. The weakest link will cause it to break the quickest, no matter how strong any one particular link might be. And the reverse is true for defense. It may only take one defender breaking through to wreak havoc on an opposing quarterback."
After an influx of offensive linemen this offseason, the Falcons have plenty of players to evaluate and greater depth than they did this time a year ago. If Walder's comparison of an offensive line to a chain is true, the Falcons have made a concerted effort to strengthen the links.
The research in this piece is pretty detailed and thorough, so I'd recommend reading it in full if interested, which you can do here.
NFL.com: Predicting every NFC team's MVP for 2019
In 2016, Matt Ryan became the first player in Falcons history to claim the NFL MVP Award. Last season, Ryan was once again incredibly efficient throwing the football and with 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, he came extraordinarily close to matching his MVP numbers.
It's no surprise then that NFL.com's Dan Hanzus views Ryan as the Falcons' top MVP candidate heading into 2019.
"Ryan might never again match the production of his phenomenal MVP season of 2016 -- but you might be surprised how close he came a year ago," Hanzus writes. "In 2018, Ryan threw for nearly 5,000 yards with 35 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, proving once again that he remains one of the very best quarterbacks in football as he quietly builds a solid resume for Canton. Reunited with former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and boasting an enviable coterie of skill players, Ryan is going to pile up numbers again. Too bad he can't play defense, too."
To see who else Hanzus tabbed as his team's MVP, click here.
ESPN: Falcons owner: Deals for stars 'a matter of when'
The Falcons are currently working towards extensions for Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett, who was given the team's franchise tag earlier this offseason. Past that, it's Deion Jones who seems the next likely player up for a new deal. ESPN's Vaughn McClure reached out to Arthur Blank about the ongoing discussions, and the Falcons owner continues to be optimistic about keeping the three stars in the fold.
"We have a salary cap, we have limits, that we have to think about not only today but tomorrow, and we have to balance all that off,'' Blank told McClure. "But these are three great young men that we care deeply about, both personally and professionally. They are going to be Falcons for life.
"I'm not worried about getting the deals done. I'm speaking on behalf of Atlanta and Atlanta fans. Thomas [Dimitroff] is working hard to get them done. Coach [Dan] Quinn is supportive as well. It will happen. It's just a matter of when.''
To read the rest of McClure's piece on the contract negotiations, click here.
CBS Sports: Top NFL players by jersey number
In celebration of the upcoming 100th NFL season, CBS Sports' Cody Benjamin ranked the best current-day player for each jersey number. The Falcons had six players on Benjamin's list, including Matt Ryan (No. 2), Julio Jones (No. 11), Ricardo Allen (No. 37), Deion Jones (No. 45), Alex Mack (No. 51) and Austin Hooper (No. 81).
"Not the best-looking QB number, if we're being honest, but Ryan's rocked it since Day 1, and no one else really comes close to matching his level of talent and/or production," Benjamin writes of Ryan. "These are the kicker numbers, remember!"
To see the rest of Benjamin's list and who else made the cut, click here.
ESPN: Freeman takes verbal hits from Dunn to avoid real ones
Devonta Freeman looks rejuvenated this summer. After missing all but two games due to injury last season, the Falcons' starting running back has been one of the highlights during organized team activities in recent weeks.
When on the field, Freeman is one of the NFL's top versatile running backs, but after suffering injuries in each of the last two seasons it will be important for him to stay on the field in 2019. That's something former Falcons running back Warrick Dunn wants to see from Freeman as well.
In a well-done piece by ESPN's Vaughn McClure, Freeman and Dunn discussed their relationship and how the former Falcons' running back is advising Atlanta's current one to think about his health.
"A lot of times, these guys always want to prove that they're tough or that they can get the tough yard, but sometimes you have to live for another down," Dunn told McClure. "My advice to Devonta was, 'You have to learn how to protect yourself at the same time. You're picking up tough yards, but you have to be smart and strategic about it.'
"To be a better runner, it's not always about, 'Let me run over guys.' It's 'How can I avoid the big hit so I can have longevity in this league?' And I just try to encourage him to become a better overall runner."
Prior to last season, Freeman had topped 1,000 offensive yards in three consecutive years. The two-time Pro Bowler has 4,921 total yards in his career and 37 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns.
To read the rest of McClure's conversation with Dunn and Freeman, click here.
CBS Sports: Projecting NFC South win totals
We're still more than a month away from NFL training camps firing up, so it's incredibly difficult to predict how things will shake out when games finally return to our lives in the fall. Nevertheless, a little thing like time won't stop people from making predictions about how the 2019 season will unfold.
CBS Sports' Will Brinson offers his thoughts each year on whether teams will exceed or fall short of their projected win totals, and he shared his views on the NFC South in a recent piece. Vegas has set the Falcons' 2019 win total at 8.5, and Brinson, albeit somewhat cautiously, believes Atlanta can exceed that number.
"Offensively, this is a loaded team," Brinson writes. "Matt Ryan is great and has Dirk Koetter, a familiar face, as his OC. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley is off-the-charts dangerous. Austin Hooper is underrated and Devonta Freeman should be healthy. Adding Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary gives them talent all over the line. But boy do they need a hot start. The Falcons open up against the Vikings(road), Eagles (home), Colts (road) and Titans (home). That's tough. Then they get the Texans (road), Cardinals (road), Rams (home) and Seahawks (home). Sitting at 4-4 heading into the Week 9 bye without having played a single divisional game wouldn't be out of the question at all. I'm having them squeak by here but wouldn't want to bet it; 8-8 could absolutely happen."
To see the rest of Brinson's thoughts on the division and the Falcons, including his opinion of the team's defense, click here.