FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes the Falcons player who might be in line for a breakout year as well as a solid preseason for linebacker Jonathan Celestin.
Despite the veteran talent the Falcons have on their roster, they haven't been afraid to give young players high amounts of playing time in years past. In fact, part of the reason they have the veteran talent they do right now is because players like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Austin Hooper were given plenty of reps in their first two seasons.
While Jones and Neal were named to their first Pro Bowl last season, it's the third person on that aforementioned list – Hooper – who might be in line for a breakout season, according to ESPN's Vaughn McClure.
"The third-year player is ready to show he can be a reliable threat in or out of the red zone," McClure writes. "Hooper spent extra time with QB Matt Ryan this offseason rather than going home to Cali. He's had some dominant days down the middle in practice, an area that could open up more with safeties concerned about the new lowering-the-helmet rules."
As McClure noted, Hooper spent time with Matt Ryan this offseason for the second year in a row, and it looks like they have indeed built up a nice chemistry. The two were often in sync during training camp, and Ryan connected with Hooper on a critical third-and-11 on their first possession against the Kansas City Chiefs to pick up the first down, and he again hit Hooper for a 4-yard touchdown pass to end that drive.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
AJC: Celestin turned in another strong performance
Linebacker Jonathan Celestin has strung together two solid preseason games after signing with the Falcons this summer. Celestin came up with the Falcons' lone sack in their first preseason game against the Jets, and he followed that up by leading Atlanta with six solo tackles against the Chiefs.
When asked about Celestin, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said he's someone who has caught his eye.
"We are adding reps to his special teams as we go so we can get a bigger look at some of the space plays where he's covering 30 or 40 yards down the field," Quinn said. "Definitely somebody that we're really interested in."
D. Orlando Ledbetter wrote about Celestin in a piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to read that piece, click here.
NFL.com: Rankings the NFL's best defenses for 2018
People who watched the Falcons play at least a few games in 2017 saw a young defense that was quietly improving. Now, after finishing as a top-10 unit last year, the Falcons' defense looks poised to continue its upward trajectory. NFL.com columnist Adam Schein released his ranking of the top defenses heading into 2018, and he's got the Falcons on his list at No. 8.
"The defensive backfield is strong as a whole, with Keanu Neal establishing himself as one of the league's most imposing hammers," Schein writes. "Up front, Grady Jarrett is a menace on the defensive interior. Defensive end Vic Beasley is capable of being special, but the Falcons have to put him in positions to succeed as an edge rusher. And I expect Takk McKinley to have a vastly improved second season.
"In the middle of it all is Deion Jones, a stud middle linebacker who excels against the pass and run. Pro Football Focus had him ranked as the No. 4 linebacker in football last season."
To see who else Schein has among his top defenses for 2018, click here.
NFL.com: Mark Ingram getting extra work ahead of suspension
The Saints will be missing half of their talented backfield duo for the first four games of the season, including their Week 3 matchup against the Falcons, as Mark Ingram will be suspended for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substance policy.
In preparation for Ingram's absence, the Saints are giving him a full workload this preseason, according to NFL.com's Herbie Teope.
"Ingram didn't record an offensive snap in the first two preseason games in 2017, but the Saints have utilized a different tactic with Ingram by giving him 14 total carries on 23 offensive snaps in the past two exhibition matchups," Teope writes. "Alvin Kamara spent Friday night's game against the Arizona Cardinals on the sidelines wearing a baseball cap."
While the Saints will still have Kamara in their backfield when they face the Falcons in Week 3, they are currently determining the rest of the running back pecking order while Ingram is out.