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Early Bird Report: Todd Gurley is still among NFL's most explosive runners

There's been a lot of talk this offseason about Todd Gurley’s health and how much the Falcons will be able to get out of the former All-Pro running back, but there are a few stats from last season that indicate he still has a bit left in the tank.

Using advanced metrics, writer Nick Shook ranked the 10 most explosive runners in the NFL last season. He used a variety of criteria for this list, looking at the total number of 10-plus-yard runs a player had, the percentage of his carries that went for 10 yards or more and the percentage of carries in which a player reached a speed of 15 miles per hour.


Based on that data, Shook determined that Gurley was the eighth-most explosive runner in the league last season, even ranking ahead of Panthers star Christian McCaffrey.

"Here's where the numbers are peculiar," Shook writes. "Even if we don't quite agree with this result (based on the recent events that saw Gurley fall out of favor in L.A.), Gurley does indeed meet the criteria to land on this list, which suggests that, even during his down year, he was still among the league's more explosive runners. Only one of Gurley's 10 fastest touches over the last two seasons came in 2019, yet he still managed to reach or exceed 15 mph on nearly 20 percent of his 223 attempts. His 21 runs of 10-plus yards show he can still gain significant yards, even if he hasn't been the home-run hitter he once was. Will we see him here again in 2020 as a member of the Falcons? Unlikely, but he's still got at least some juice, or he did in 2019."

Shook seems a little reticent about Gurley's future upside, but the numbers indicate that the Falcons' newest running back still has enough burst to give defenses some headaches. Against Atlanta, defenses might not be able to stack the box consistently for fear of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley beating them outside.

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

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

CBSSports: Teams with five most difficult stretches

We already know the Falcons have one of the toughest schedules in the league, and that includes one of the hardest stretches that any team will have to face in 2020. CBSSports write John Breech believes Atlanta's final three-game run, in which they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice with a trip to Kansas City sandwiched in between, is the second-hardest stretch that any team will have this season.

"If the Falcons want to make the postseason in 2020, they better have a playoff berth wrapped up by the time Week 14 ends, because there's a good chance that things are going to get ugly for Atlanta starting right around that point," Breech writes. "Over the final three weeks of the season, the Falcons will be facing Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and then Tom Brady again. That's definitely a nightmare stretch for a team that struggled to stop the pass last year. The good news for the Falcons is that they've dominated the Buccaneers over the past few years, winning six of their past seven against Tampa. However, that streak came against Jameis Winston, who's not going to be around to hand the Falcons free wins, like he did in Week 17 last season when he threw an overtime pick-six that allowed Atlanta to win."

That stretch could actually be widened a little bit, because the second half of the Falcons' schedule is no joke. With two games against the Saints, two against the Buccaneers and three AFC matchups, Atlanta will have to be playing its best football after the bye week.

To see the rest of Breech's list of tough NFL stretches, click here.

CBSSports: Ranking NFL offensive triplets

With Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in place, the Atlanta Falcons already had elite options at two of the three key offensive skill positions. By signing Todd Gurley this offseason to take over for Devonta Freeman, the Falcons solidified the third part of that trio, and CBSSports writer Jared Dubin likes the group they've assembled.

In a recent ranking of the NFL's best offensive trios – an area the Falcons have often ranked highly over the past several seasons – Atlanta was right up there near the top. The Falcons were tied for sixth with the Green Bay Packers, boasting an aggregate grade of 8.30. Dubin graded each piece of the offensive trio on a scale of 1-10, and he gave the quarterback a higher weight than the other two positions.

Ryan earned an eight from Dubin, Gurley received a six and Jones received a perfect 10. Here's what Dubin had to say about the Falcons:

"Ryan is remarkably durable, remarkably productive, and until last season, consistently above average across the board. He took a step backward last season, falling short of league averages in yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and passer rating, each for the first time since 2013. …

"Gurley was just cut by the Rams, so even though he was slightly more effective last season than popular consensus would have you believe, we can't justify giving him too high a grade. Jones is arguably the best wideout in football, more efficient on a per-route basis than just about everybody in the league, just about every year. He's also now got 14 touchdowns across the past two seasons, so hopefully we can dispel with the silly notion that he simply cannot score."

Atlanta doesn't just boast a formidable trio, offensively. Calvin Ridley has emerged as one of the top young receivers in the NFL in just two seasons, and the Falcons have high hopes that tight end Hayden Hurst can be an effective option for Ryan in his first season.

To see the rest of Dubin's offensive trio rankings, click here.

ESPN: FPI projections for NFL teams

The 2020 football season is still a ways away, but there are enough known factors with each NFL team that predictions can start being pieced together. ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) is one such prediction model, and it has offered its predictions on which teams will make the postseason this year and how the standings will shake out.

It does not place the Falcons in the former category, giving Atlanta just a 31-percent chance to reach the playoffs. ESPN's FPI ranks the Falcons No. 18 among the league's 32 teams and projects 7.5 wins for Atlanta. The model has two NFC South teams ranked in its top 10 – the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints are projected to reach 10.2 wins and have an 83-percent chance to reach the playoffs, while the Buccaneers have a 63-percent chance to play past the regular season and a projected to reach 9.1 wins.

If Atlanta is going to buck the FPI projections, it will need to play well right out of the gate and finish strong in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.

To see the rest of ESPN's projections, click here. NFL's top 10 deep passers

As is the case with many aspects of his play, Matt Ryan doesn't get the credit he deserves for his ability to throw the ball downfield. Even a portion of Falcons fans like to criticize Ryan for, what they believe, is a weak arm. Well, the stats have a different story to tell. writer Nick Shook, using Next Gen Stats, listed the 10 best deep passers from the 2019 season. The primary metric used in his piece is completion percentage above expectation, but there were several other factors weighed as well. In this particular ranking, Ryan measured out as the ninth-best deep passer in the league last season.

"Welcome to the weeds. Some quarterbacks had higher passer ratings on deep passes, but the completion percentage above expectation still reigns supreme here, despite Ryan's negative TD-to-INT ratio. Look, it wasn't the best campaign for the Falcons, but Ryan still gave it his best, dropping six DIMES while throwing into tight windows on 34.5 percent of his deep attempts. That might have been what produced his five interceptions, of course, but the positive completion percentage means he was still more effective going deep than he wasn't, even when incomplete stats like interceptions tell a different story. Don't overlook his pressure percentage of 32.7, either."

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

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2020 Falcons Schedule

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CBSSports: 2020 QB tiers

Ryan earned the first NFL MVP Award in franchise history after a stellar 2016 campaign, but he's played at a very similar level since that season. In fact, No quarterback in the league has topped Ryan's 18,429 passing yards since 2016, and his 119 touchdown passes are tied with Drew Brees for second most in that time, just behind Russell Wilson's 121.

Ryan also has the most completions in the NFL since the 2016 season – 43 ahead of Brees, who is second in that metric – and he has the fifth-best completion percentage as well.

Yet despite that sustained high level of play, CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora does not believe Ryan is a "Bona Fide Franchise Quarterback." In his recent revisiting of NFL quarterback tiers, La Canfora has the following players listed as franchise quarterbacks: Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz and Ben Roethlisberger.

He has Ryan listed on the tier below in what he calls, "Top Pros, Proven Winners."

"Ryan isn't getting any younger either, and the cast around him is not what it once was," La Canfora writes. "At his price point, Ryan just sneaks into the top-10."

It's hard to understand what role money plays in La Canfora's reasoning, but that can be set aside. There's no arguing with probably half of his top-tier group, but the inclusions of Watson, Wentz and Roethlisberger at this point raise some eyebrows. Watson is undoubtedly a good player, but he's yet to put together the type of statistical resume or on-field success that Ryan has. Wentz looked well on his way to an MVP season of his own in 2017, but he's yet to regain that level of play due to injury. And Roethlisberger's best days are far behind him, and he missed most of last year with an injury of his own.

That Ryan is considered a cut below those players is a bit of a head-scratcher. Then again, La Canfora did have Cam Newton as a franchise quarterback in every edition of this list, dating back to 2016, prior to this recent edition. He has never, by the way, included Ryan in that top group – even the year after Ryan's MVP season.

You have to wonder if something else is in play here.

To see the rest of La Canfora's quarterback tiers and how it all shakes out, click here. Most underappreciated players in NFC

During his time with the Falcons, Grady Jarrett has developed into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. He was finally rewarded for his play in 2019 with his first trip to the Pro Bowl, and Jarrett's future looks bright.

Falcons fans don't need any explanation of just how good Jarrett is on a snap-by-snap basis, but he still isn't often in the same national conversation as some other top defensive tackles like Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox. Perhaps that's why NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund named Jarrett as the most underappreciated player on the Falcons' roster.

"Jarrett's ability to stop the run made him an extremely efficient member of the Falcons' defense, as he tied for the NFL lead with 20 run stuffs last season (per Next Gen Stats)," Frelund writes. "My spatial models show that his ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks ranked fifth (in pressure-rate percentage) among interior defenders."

Now an important leader both on and off the field for the Falcons, Jarrett will need to play a vital role for the defense if Atlanta is to make another trip to the postseason in 2020.

To see the rest of the NFC players who Frelund believes are underrated, click here.

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