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Early Bird Report: Pro Football Focus previews Falcons season

Today’s Early Bird Report includes a position-by-position breakdown of the Falcons by Pro Football Focus ahead of the 2020 season

The 2020 offseason has been largely stagnant due to COVID-19 and not much has changed around the league in the last months. Therefore, fans likely have a pretty good feel for where each team stands as training camps are set to begin later this month.

Given that football is actually back and taking place, though, it's as good a time as any to provide thorough previews for the 2020 season, which is exactly what Pro Football Focus has done. PFF writer Steve Palazzolo took a deep look at the how the Falcons stack up heading into the fall, breaking down each position group and sharing his overall thoughts on the team.


"Since losing in the 2016 Super Bowl, the Falcons have slowly declined, though there is still plenty of talent on the roster to compete in the NFC," Palazzolo writes. "They have had a knack for playing better than their record would indicate, but issues among the offensive line and secondary last season thwarted any attempt of getting back to the playoffs. The roster was strong for a few years, but the Falcons have recently been trying to stop the leaks in those key areas, and it's been difficult to keep up in a competitive NFC. However, the pieces are in place to make a playoff run. The offense can put points on the board — now, the back-seven must improve from its 24th-best coverage grade a year ago."

The expectations are high for the Falcons in 2020 after missing the playoffs the past two seasons. Atlanta approached this offseason with urgency, acquiring talent in some key areas to replace those it lost in free agency. There's a tough road ahead for the Falcons, as they have one of the league's toughest schedules, but there's talent on the roster and the team knows what's at stake.

To read all of Palazzolo's extensive preview of the Falcons ahead of the season, click here.

ESPN: Projecting future Hall of Famers for NFL teams

The Falcons have not lacked for talent during the last half of the previous decade, and they've got a few players on their roster who might have a shot at the Hall of Fame when all is said and done.

ESPN's Bill Barnwell laid out the case for those in Atlanta who are making the best case for enshrinement in Canton in a recent article, and it's not surprising that Julio Jones and Matt Ryan lead the way. Jones and Ryan both fall under the "likely" category, which Barnwell defines as players with between a 70- and 99-percent chance to make the Hall of Fame.

"Jones is likely to top 13,000 receiving yards and earn his eighth Pro Bowl nod this season, which should be enough to seal things for the superstar wideout," Barnwell writes of Jones. "He isn't going to catch Jerry Rice, but he's just under 5,000 yards behind Larry Fitzgerald, who ranks second in career receiving yards. Jones should make up some of that difference in 2020, and after Fitzgerald retires, he should be able to challenge the Cardinals great for that second spot."

Todd Gurley is just below Jones and Ryan, landing in the "in the running" category. Barnwell estimates he has between a 40- to 69-percent chance at getting in. Finally, Grady Jarrett and Alex Mack are in the "work to do" category and have between a 10- to 39-percent chance of induction.

There are a few other Falcons like Calvin Ridley and Deion Jones who are off to a good start in their careers and could be building their own case for enshrinement one day.

To see who Barnwell also views as players in the running for the Hall of Fame, click here.

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

CBS Sports: The biggest question for each team entering camp

NFL training camps are set to begin this month, giving teams their first opportunity of the offseason to get on-field work in preparation for the 2020 season. Every team enters camp with some lingering questions from last season, and the Falcons are no different.

CBS Sports senior writer Pete Prisco gave some consideration to each team's biggest question entering camp, and he's defined one for Atlanta that has been a big part of the conversation surrounding the Falcons the last two offseasons. In Prisco's mind, the offensive line remains the top question mark for the Falcons.

"Matt Ryan took a beating last season, and that came after the Falcons made improving the line a priority in 2019," Prisco writes. "It didn't work. They lost rookie first-round guard Chris Lindstrom in Week 1, and he played just four games. They also started another rookie at right tackle in Kaleb McGary. Ryan was sacked 48 times and got hit a bunch more. They hope a year of experience will help Lindstrom and McGary on the right side. Rookie Matt Hennessy could take James Carpenter's spot at left guard. Ryan needs to be protected better." 

The 48 sacks Ryan took last season were the most of his career, and while Atlanta's offensive line had some good moments in the run game, its pass protection needs to improve. Maturation by Lindstrom and McGary on the right side of the line would go a long way towards helping the unit improve, and the Falcons are hoping to find a more permanent solution at left guard after rotating several players at that spot in 2019.

To read the rest of Prisco's biggest questions entering camp, click here. Ranking offensive tackles for 2020

As a crucial part of one of the league's consistently great offenses, Jake Matthews is arguably underrated. A mainstay at left tackle since the Falcons selected him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Matthews has been incredibly durable and dependable while protecting Matt Ryan's blindside.

Matthews didn't perform up to his usual level early on during the 2019 season, but he quickly turned things around and closed out the year on a very high note. Pro Football Focus took note of Matthews' improved play, and they’ve rated him as the 10th-best tackle entering the 2020 season.

"Matthews got off to a rough start in 2019, posting his three worst single-game grades of the year in Weeks 1, 2 and 3," PFF's Anthony Treash writes. "From Week 4 and on, though, he had the best run of his six-year career, slotting in as the fourth-highest graded tackle in that span. That helped Matthews earn a top-10 spot entering 2020, and he will keep rising if that trend continues."

Atlanta needs its offensive line to pick things up if it is to fully unlock its offense this fall. With Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst added to a unit that already contained Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, the Falcons are poised once again to put up a lot of points. To achieve all that it is capable of, however, Atlanta can't be held back by its offensive line like it was at times in 2019.

If other offensive linemen like Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary can make similar strides to the one Matthews made last fall, the Falcons will be in great shape. Peter Schrager's most underappreciated players

The Falcons had three players on the NFL's Top 100 Players of 2020 list – quarterback Matt Ryan not among them – and Julio Jones was highest among them, coming in at No. 11. Jones had the second-most receiving yards in the NFL last season despite missing a game due to injury.

While most players in the league would likely be very pleased to be voted 11th by his peers, that still seems a bit low for Jones, who has been arguably the best receiver of the last decade and continues to play at a high level. It's not just Falcons fans who believe that Jones got snubbed by landing outside of the top 10, either.

NFL Network host Peter Schrager named Jones his “most underappreciated” player on the top 100 list.

"How is Julio Jones not a top 10 player on this list," Schrager says. "I love DeAndre Hopkins. I love Michael Thomas. I'm not saying he should be above them, but I know defensive coordinators who lose sleep three nights before they have to face Julio. I know defensive players who, without even a wink, have to say Julio is the guy they fear the most on the other side of the ball. Julio Jones has been on this list time and time again, and the numbers bear out. He always puts up huge numbers, he always dominates and yet the players voted Julio Jones outside of the top 10? I'm shocked by it."

A list constructed purely by player voting should always be taken with a grain of salt, and a recent poll of NFL coaches and execs conducted by ESPN had Jones as the league’s No. 1 receiver, but the Falcons' star receiver has proven throughout his career that he's unlike any other player. Fortunately, Atlanta fans have gotten an up-close look at just how special he is throughout the years. Why Gurley should be a great 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.

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.

Kaleb McGary is entering his second year with the Falcons and is working hard alongside the offensive line. Take a look at some of our best photos from Day 3 of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.

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