Early Bird Report: NFC South has league's best collection of quarterbacks


With the addition of Tom Brady, the NFC South is now home to three of the best quarterbacks of the last decade-plus. Matt Ryan and Drew Brees have long had some iconic clashes in one of the league's top rivalries, and it will be exciting to see how Brady factors into the division mix with a really good Tampa Bay team behind him.


NFL.com columnist Adam Schein also views the NFC South as the top quarterback division in the league, and he doesn't think it's particularly close. He lays out his case for each quarterback's situation, which is too long to put here in its entirety, but here's what he has to say about Ryan and the Falcons:

"Although Ryan has a league MVP under his belt, the Falcons QB inexplicably remains underrated. Guy's a stud, still squarely in the prime of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. With the dynamic duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley out wide, Ryan will enjoy another season of domination."

The Falcons went 4-2 against NFC South teams in 2019, and they will need to have similar success this year if they hope to achieve their goal of reaching the postseason for the third time under Dan Quinn. With late-season games against the Buccaneers and Saints, the Falcons will need to be peaking at the right time ahead of matchups with two of the best quarterbacks in the league.

To see the rest of Schein's thoughts on the NFC South and his full division rankings, click here.

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

PFF.com: PFF's one-year wonder team

Vic Beasley's 2016 for the Atlanta Falcons seemed to signal his arrival as one of the top young edge rushers in the NFL. Four years later, it now stands as an outlier for a player who was allowed to leave Atlanta on the open market. In looking back at some of the one-year wonders since 2006, Pro Football Focus writer Ben Linsey didn't have a hard time naming Beasley at one of the edge spots.

"Beasley also cashed in on a new contract this offseason, and part of that check stems from a 2016 season where he led the NFL in sacks. Beasley's 79.9 pass-rushing grade in 2016 indicates he probably didn't deserve to lead the NFL in sacks, but it was a strong showing as a pass-rusher nonetheless. His career looked to be on an upward trend. The last three seasons haven't come close to reaching those heights, though. Eighty-eight edge defenders have 500 or more pass-rushing snaps since 2017. Beasley's pressure rate of 8.9% ranks 75th among that group. That number doesn't match up with the guy who led the league in sacks four seasons ago."

To see the rest of Linsey's one-year wonder team, click here.

CBSSports.com: The best pick at each draft spot

Nothing can change the course of a franchise quite like nailing a draft pick. Given the cost effectiveness and ability to keep a player under contract during the prime of his career, teams who draft well often have a leg up on the rest of the league.

As the dog days of summer continue, CBSSports.com writer Josh Edwards took a look at which player was the best pick at every single spot in the draft over the last 50 years. While it's important to hit on any pick in the draft, it's even more important to draft the correct player with one of the highest picks. The Falcons did just that in 1989 when they drafted Deion Sanders, one of the most popular players in franchise and league history.

"It was essentially a coin toss between LaDainian Tomlinson and Sanders," Edwards said of the choice at No. 5. "It is more complicated attempting to quantify Sanders' illustrious career. In addition to his time served as a professional baseball player, the former Seminole recorded 53 interceptions and appeared in eight Pro Bowls."

Sanders wasn't the only pick the Falcons made that stood among all others in the league. In total, the Falcons made seven picks in the last 50 years that Edwards deemed better than any other at the spot that player was taken: Brett Favre (No. 33), Grady Jarrett (No. 137), Ray Brown (No. 148), Jamal Anderson (No. 201), Tom Pridemore (No. 236), Todd McClure (No. 237).

Jarrett and McClure are the two most recent Falcons selections on this list, and they have been among the most impactful players for the franchise over the past two decades. After signing a new contract extension ahead of the 2019 season, Jarrett earned his first Pro Bowl nod and continued to make his case as one of the best defensive tackles in the league.

"Jarrett is a dream for an NFL general manager, as the Falcons invested a fifth round pick and got a Pro Bowl caliber player in return, with his first trip to the all-star game coming last year," Edwards writes. "Jarrett has managed 21.5 sacks in 77 games (62 starts) thus far."

To see the rest of Edwards' list of best draft picks, click here.

NFL.com: Key homegrown player for each team

Before an abdominal injury cut his season short, Calvin Ridley was on pace to break 1,000 receiving yards in his second NFL season. Even more impressive, Ridley's 17 touchdown catches since 2018 are the third-most by a receiver in the league, ahead of such players like Mike Evans, Stefon Diggs and Julian Edelman.

Everyone around the NFL knows how excellent Julio Jones is, but Ridley's improvement could again give the Falcons one of the best receiver duos in the league. Matt Ryan enjoyed throwing the ball to Jones and Roddy White during the first half of his career, and if Ridley takes another step forward in his development in his third season, the Falcons could again provide their quarterback with two legitimate No. 1 receivers.

In a list of the key homegrown players for each NFL team in 2020, "Around the NFL" editor Gregg Rosenthal named Ridley as the Falcons' most important breakout option.

"Ridley is good. Can he be great? A third-year player who is turning 26 years old this season, he started putting up monster numbers after the Falcons traded Mohamed Sanu at midseason," Rosenthal writes. "An abdominal injury curtailed Ridley's run, where he had finally combined his silky smooth routes with great plays after the catch. His game speed also improved. Ridley is a solid second banana, but the Falcons would love for Julio Jones and Ridley to produce like two WR1s after the team failed to address its lack of receiver depth this offseason."

Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was similarly impressed with Ridley's play in their first season working together, and he believes there's another level the third-year receiver can reach. If that happens, Ridley may take the entire offense up a notch with him.

To see the rest of Rosenthal's list of key homegrown players, click here.

NFL.com: 10 best QBs under pressure

During the 2019 season, Matt Ryan was sacked 48 times, the most in a single season of his 12-year NFL career. Despite the pressure that Ryan faces throughout a season, he continues to perform at an extremely high level.

In fact, it's that ability to make pinpoint throws with defenders bearing down on him that makes Ryan such a special quarterback, and NFL.com writer Nick Shook highlighted that quality in his recent ranking of the best passers in the league while under presser. Using Next Gen Stats Shook determined that Ryan ranked seventh among all quarterbacks while throwing under pressure last season. Ryan had a 78.4 passer rating under pressure and a completion rate 2.9 percent higher than expected in those moments.

"We shouldn't be all that surprised," Shook writes of Ryan's place on this list. "No one in the NFL owns a higher passer rating under pressure in every season combined since 2016 than Ryan, whose mark of 87.9 puts him at the head of a top-five list that also includes Stafford, Alex Smith, Tom Brady (82.9) and Mahomes (81.2). Only Brady has thrown more touchdown passes while under pressure (30) than Ryan (27) since 2016. Ryan owns the highest passer rating that didn't occur in 2019, too, with his 104.9 mark from 2016 sitting third in the top five passer ratings under pressure since 2016. And for those who will say most of these combined numbers are inflated by that memorable run to Super Bowl LI in 2016, here's the numerical retort you weren't seeking: Ryan tied for the third most touchdown passes thrown under pressure in a single season with nine, and he did so in 2018."

With Ryan still making plays, the Falcons should always have an opportunity to boast one of the league's best offenses. Atlanta has retooled its offense a bit this offseason, but the Falcons still have plenty of weapons around their former NFL MVP.

To see the rest of Shook's ranking, click here.

The Ringer: 7 players who need a breakout season

This offseason, the Falcons have acquired several former first-round picks, seemingly taking on a few reclamation projects in the process. Among the big-name players that were former first-round picks are Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler, who figure to have a big role on both the offense and the defense.

Hayden Hurst is another former first-round pick who is expected to do big things in Atlanta, although that's more of a projection than a calculation based on past production. Hurst has the necessary athleticism to become a weapon for the Falcons, but he didn't carve out a premier role during his two seasons with the Ravens. For that reason, Hurst is one of the seven players who Danny Kelly names as one of the seven players who need to have a breakout season in a piece he wrote for The Ringer.

"But while Hurst's tenure with the Ravens could be characterized as a bust, the 26-year-old pass catcher finds himself with a new lease on life in Atlanta, where he falls into what could be a near-ideal situation," Kelly writes. "With Austin Hooper landing in Cleveland on a big-money deal, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is in need of a dynamic pass-catching tight end. Hurst could certainly be that guy―the team clearly believes he is, based on what they gave up to acquire him―but the former Raven must prove he's up to the task before he inherits a big chunk of Hooper's 97 targets from last season. Hurst, perhaps more than anyone on this list, has a good chance to jump-start his stalled career in 2020."

Keeping in theme with the Falcons' offseason, Hurst wasn't the only Atlanta player on Kelly's list. The Falcons were reportedly interested in former Missouri pass rusher Charles Harris ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft, but he was off the board before Atlanta came on the clock. His career in Miami didn't get off to the start many expected, but he'll now have an opportunity to get back on track as part of the Falcons' defensive line rotation.

"Now Harris will get what could be his last real shot in Atlanta," Kelly writes. "The Falcons offer as strong an opportunity as he could hope for with a roster that lacks depth in its pass-rush rotation even after signing Dante Fowler in free agency. Head coach Dan Quinn said recently that he expects the former Dolphin to be a part of the team's edge rushing rotation, and that they're hoping to "get the best version of him," adding that they'll work to determine what weight Harris should play at to maximize his explosiveness off the edge. After disappointing in Miami, a change of scenery could be what Harris needs to finally make a jump."

There's one more player not listed on Kelly's list, but who might have a good opportunity to put together the best season of his career in his first run with the Falcons. Another former first-rounder, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, didn't become a primary weapon while with the Minnesota Vikings, but the Falcons have proven adept at developing wide receivers. With great players to learn from and Matt Ryan throwing him the ball, Treadwell may take the next step in his development.

To see the rest of Kelly's list for The Ringer, click here.

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