Early Bird Report: One PFF stat explains why Todd Gurley is a perfect fit in Atlanta

For the first time since 2014, the Falcons will enter a season without Devonta Freeman on their roster. Atlanta parted ways with their longtime starter at running back this offseason, and it brought in Todd Gurley to replace him.

At his peak, Gurley has proven to not be only one of the best running backs in the league but one of the best offensive weapons, period. The question surrounding the 25-year-old, however, is can he climb back to that peak? He's entering an offense that will surround him with other playmakers, and the Falcons have a zone rushing offense and have already stated their desire to utilize more outside zone runs this season.

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As Pro Football Focus notes in a recent piece ranking the running back units entering the 2020 season, that more than anything could help Gurley dominate in Atlanta.

"Devonta Freeman is moving on, and Todd Gurley II is moving in," PFF's Steve Palazzolo writes. "The Falcons' coaching staff will be looking to reclaim the old Gurley, one of the league's best zone runners and a legitimate passing-game threat at his peak with the Rams. The former first-rounder has earned a 90.4 rushing grade on zone runs over the last three years, eighth-best among 145 qualifying running backs over that period." 

PFF ranks the Falcons' backfield unit 16th among the 32 NFL teams, but given Gurley's proficiency in zone runs over the last three years, there's potential for the group to shoot up the rankings. If Atlanta strikes the right balance with its passing game, Gurley should be a prime candidate to bounce back in a big way.

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

NFL.com: Jarrett, Gurley among Top 100 NFL players

As NFL teams around the country report back for the start of training camp, NFL Media is running its annual Top 100 players list. Players from across the league vote for who they believe are the best 100 players entering the 2020 season, and two Falcons players have already been featured.

Grady Jarrett made his first appearance on the Top 100 list, debuting at No. 91. The recognition comes after Jarrett was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career following a standout 2019 season. Jarrett's rise as a leader on the Falcons defense has made him one of the most important players on the team entering 2020, and he's clearly opening the eyes of his peers.

"Jarrett set a career-high mark with 7.5 sacks in 2019, resulting in his first Pro Bowl nod and his debut on the NFL Top 100," NFL.com's Michael Baca writes. "The Falcons rewarded the mainstay of their defensive line last summer with a four-year, $68 million deal."

One of Atlanta's top free agent acquisitions has also appeared on the Top 100 list. Despite the questions surrounding his health, players around the league still consider Todd Gurley to be a top playmaker. He holds the No. 51 spot on the list, ahead of fellow running backs Chris Carson and Josh Jacobs.

Gurley will be a very important figure for the Falcons in 2020. The team is betting he can bounce back to his MVP-like form after a relative down year in 2019, and Gurley is out to prove he's still that same player after signing a one-year deal with Atlanta. If the Falcons can become a more balanced offense and have an explosive run game to match their ability to air it out, defenses will have a difficult time slowing them down.

"The former Rams star begins the 2020 season as one of the league's more fascinating players," NFL.com's Adam Maya writes. "After producing like an MVP for two years, Gurley looked like a shell of himself in 2019. It leaves everyone, the Falcons especially, to wonder how healthy he actually was and will be."

The Top 100 Players of 2020 list is currently at No. 41 with 40 players still left to be revealed. Some top Falcons such as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Deion Jones have not yet appeared on the list, and it will be interesting to see which of them makes the cut.

NFL.com: NFLPA tells players no 2020 preseason

The NFL and the NFL Players Association remain locked in negotiations about the upcoming 2020 NFL season and how to proceed in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a report by the NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport, the NFLPA informed players on Tuesday that there will be no preseason games taking place this year. The decision is one the players had reportedly been pushing for during talks with the league.

"The NFLPA also told its membership it is still pushing for a longer ramp-up period for players to physically acclimate to the training-camp demands of professional football, and it expects rosters to stand at 80 players per team," NFL.com's Nick Shook writes in a piece detailing the discussions. "The NFL has not yet signed off on an 80-man roster for training camp, per Pelissero, and though there was a discussion on giving teams an option to divide the roster (i.e., 80 active and 10 on standby), the union told players it wanted all teams to follow one rule."

The 2020 NFL season is currently slated to begin on Sep. 10 with a matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans.

CBS Sports: Every NFL team's most likely HOFer

Julio Jones has already established himself as the best wide receiver in Falcons history, and he's been among the top players in the NFL for the past decade. The only true question left regarding his career is whether or not he will end up enshrined in Canton.

CBSSports.com writer Bryan DeArdo recently ran through each NFL team and listed the player on their roster most likely to make it to the Hall of Fame. His pick for the Falcons was Jones, although he did mention that quarterback Matt Ryan is building a good case as well. Despite all that accomplished, however, DeArdo does not yet list Jones as a "lock" for the Hall of Fame, but he says he's close.

"The Falcons actually have two players who are on the Hall of Fame 'bubble,'" DeArdo writes. "While Jones is closing in on a Hall of Fame career, the same can be said of quarterback Matt Ryan, a former league MVP who is 10th all-time in career passing yards. But the nod here went to Jones, a seven-time Pro Bowler who has led the league in receiving on two separate occasions. But as good as Jones has been, he will likely need a few more prolific seasons to be considered a Hall of Fame 'lock,' as he is currently 25th in career receiving yards."

Both Jones and Ryan could well end up in the Hall of Fame with a few more seasons at the pace they are on, but they are already undoubtedly two of the greatest players to ever suit up for Atlanta.

To see the rest of DeArdo's list of possible Hall of Famers, click here.

PFF.com: Ranking QBs under pressure in 2019

It's no secret that the Falcons want to do a better job protecting Matt Ryan after the only NFL MVP in the organization's history was sacked a career-high 48 times in 2019. Despite the large volume of pressure Ryan faced last season and missing one game due to injury, he led all NFL quarterbacks with 408 completions.

Ryan's importance to the Falcons can't be overstated, and Pro Football Focus recently unveiled a stat that helps illustrate why it's so important the team keeps him protected. According to PFF, Ryan had the second-biggest drop in passing grade while under pressure among all quarterbacks last season. Ryan's -48.0 difference in passing grade was behind only Sam Darnold, whose passing grade dropped 50.2 points when under pressure.

"The 2019 campaign was rough for Ryan and the Falcons, and a lot of it had to do with troubles along the offensive line," PFF's Ben Linsey writes. "The Falcons attempted to bolster the group up front with the addition of not one but two first-round offensive linemen — Chris Lindstrom at right guard and Kaleb McGary at right tackle — but it wasn't smooth sailing for the rookies.

"Lindstrom showed some promise, but he played in only five games all season due to injury. McGary, on the other hand, struggled mightily in his first season of action. He was the only tackle in the NFL to allow double-digit sacks and quarterback hits. Meanwhile, Ryan had a top-five passing grade in the NFL from a clean pocket in 2019."

 That last sentence is perhaps the most important as it pertains to the Falcons in 2020. Ryan is still among the very best quarterbacks in the league when he's got time to set his feet and step into a throw. If the Falcons do provide him with more time this season, the whole offense will benefit greatly.

To read the rest of PFF's article, click here.

NFL.com: Maurice Jones-Drew ranks running backs

Todd Gurley is in an interesting spot as he prepares for his first season with the Atlanta Falcons. The former NFL Offensive Player of the Year is generally believed to be trending downward due to a knee injury, but the only evidence for that is a relatively poor 2019 season in which he still topped 1,000 total yards and scored 14 touchdowns – not too shabby.

With more weapons around him than he's ever had before, Gurley won't have to shoulder the load the way he did in Los Angeles. It wouldn't be surprising at all if Gurley has a bounce-back year this fall, but there seems to be some hesitation among those in the national media to declare him one of the top backs in the league.

Former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew continued that trend in a recent ranking for NFL.com. He ranked Gurley 19th among all running backs entering the season, but he does explain that he expects big things from the former Rams star during his first season in Atlanta.

"For the first time in his career, Gurley won't be the featured player in the offense," Jones-Drew writes. "The Falcons' offense goes through Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Co., so expect Gurley to face fewer loaded boxes than he did with the Rams. The first-year Falcons back should have a big year in 2020, but he sits at No. 19 here because there are simply too many mouths to feed."

To see the rest of the running backs on Jones-Drew's list and how he ranks them, click here.

We are counting down the top 10 Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.

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