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Early Bird Report: The Falcons' biggest question entering training camp

Today’s Early Bird Report includes the biggest question for the Falcons as they prepare to enter training camp this month

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.

Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today: 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. 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,"'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,"'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.

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. 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.

The Atlanta Falcons are back to work as 2020 AT&T Training Camp kicked off in Flowery Branch. Take a look at the best images from Day 1.

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