Early Bird Report: Two Falcons who need breakout seasons

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This offseason, the Falcons have acquired several former first-round picks, seemingly taking on a few reclamation projects in the process. Among the big-name players that were former first-round picks are Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler, who figure to have a big role on both the offense and the defense.

Hayden Hurst is another former first-round pick who is expected to do big things in Atlanta, although that's more of a projection than a calculation based on past production. Hurst has the necessary athleticism to become a weapon for the Falcons, but he didn't carve out a premier role during his two seasons with the Ravens. For that reason, Hurst is one of the seven players who Danny Kelly names as one of the seven players who need to have a breakout season in a piece he wrote for The Ringer.

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"But while Hurst's tenure with the Ravens could be characterized as a bust, the 26-year-old pass catcher finds himself with a new lease on life in Atlanta, where he falls into what could be a near-ideal situation," Kelly writes. "With Austin Hooper landing in Cleveland on a big-money deal, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is in need of a dynamic pass-catching tight end. Hurst could certainly be that guy―the team clearly believes he is, based on what they gave up to acquire him―but the former Raven must prove he's up to the task before he inherits a big chunk of Hooper's 97 targets from last season. Hurst, perhaps more than anyone on this list, has a good chance to jump-start his stalled career in 2020."

Keeping in theme with the Falcons' offseason, Hurst wasn't the only Atlanta player on Kelly's list. The Falcons were reportedly interested in former Missouri pass rusher Charles Harris ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft, but he was off the board before Atlanta came on the clock. His career in Miami didn't get off to the start many expected, but he'll now have an opportunity to get back on track as part of the Falcons' defensive line rotation.

"Now Harris will get what could be his last real shot in Atlanta," Kelly writes. "The Falcons offer as strong an opportunity as he could hope for with a roster that lacks depth in its pass-rush rotation even after signing Dante Fowler in free agency. Head coach Dan Quinn said recently that he expects the former Dolphin to be a part of the team's edge rushing rotation, and that they're hoping to "get the best version of him," adding that they'll work to determine what weight Harris should play at to maximize his explosiveness off the edge. After disappointing in Miami, a change of scenery could be what Harris needs to finally make a jump."

There's one more player not listed on Kelly's list, but who might have a good opportunity to put together the best season of his career in his first run with the Falcons. Another former first-rounder, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, didn't become a primary weapon while with the Minnesota Vikings, but the Falcons have proven adept at developing wide receivers. With great players to learn from and Matt Ryan throwing him the ball, Treadwell may take the next step in his development.

To see the rest of Kelly's list for The Ringer, click here.

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

AJC: Goodbye John Zook, a classic Falcon

Former Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Zook died Saturday at the age of 72 after a long battle with cancer, according to a report by Steve Hummer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Zook played for seven seasons with the Falcons from 1969-75, pairing with Hall of Fame defensive end Claude Humphrey to give Atlanta a dependable pass rush off the edge. The two defensive ends were named to the Pro Bowl after the 1973 season, when the Falcons won a franchise-best nine games.

"The most fun I had the whole time I played football was the time John and I had that (1973) season when we were both selected to the Pro Bowl," Humphrey told Hummer. "We had it down pat, man, I tell you. We figured out we were better together than we were individually."

Zook's time with the Falcons came prior to the era when sacks became an officially chronicled statistic, but, like Humphrey, those who saw Zook play can attest to how great of a defender he was. Among the stats that are attributed to Zook, however, is the first safety in Falcons franchise history, which occurred in 1971.

Hummer wrote a fitting tribute to Zook and his time with the Falcons, which you can read here.

NFL.com: State of the Falcons franchise

After back-to-back 7-9 finishes, the Falcons are all in on making a return trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Atlanta retained a majority of its coaching staff, including head coach Dan Quinn and all three coordinators from the end of the 2019 season, and the organization is betting that continuity will pay off.

In the midst of the offseason, NFL.com writer Adam Rank took a look at the state of the Falcons franchise heading into the 2020 season. It's a pretty thorough dive into the team, and worth a read in its entirety. Rank's piece is broken down into a variety of sections, including one about the important players for the upcoming season. In that section, he names Calvin Ridley as his choice for this year's breakout star.

"A lot of people (especially me, from a selfish fantasy perspective) would love to see Ridley make a Chris Godwin-like leap in his third NFL season," Ranks writes. "Consider these numbers (all of which, of course, come from Next Gen Stats): Ridley was 16th in catch percentage last year (67.7%, among receivers with 50-plus targets), but sixth in catch percentage above expectation (59.0). Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 113.5 when targeting him, 12th in the NFL. Julio can still dominate like he does, but it feels like Ridley's time to take over."

There's a lot of good information in Rank's article, and it's something any Falcons fan would like enjoy as a primer for the upcoming year. You can read the entire piece, here.

ESPN: NFL cancels joint practices for training camp

Earlier this offseason, Falcons coach Dan Quinn confirmed that the team had discussed holding joint practices during training camp with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. Given travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, however, he did not know whether those discussions would be finalized.

According to ESPN reporter David Newton, the NFL sent a memo to all 32 teams on Tuesday stating that no joint practices will be held in 2020. This announcement puts an end to any plans the Falcons might have had for an inter-squad scrimmage during training camp.

"The NFLPA was strongly in favor of these two decisions, which were made to limit exposure risks by avoiding the need for clubs to clean and maintain two facilities, by limiting the need for players and club staffs to travel to another location (sometimes located at a considerable distance from the home facility), and by limiting travel and contact between players on different clubs in the context of joint practices," Goodell said in the memo, according to Newton's report. "These steps are being taken for the 2020 preseason to address the current conditions and are not expected to be in place in 2021."

The Falcons have not previously participated in joint practices under Quinn, preferring to compete amongst themselves. This new approach was something Quinn had hinted at during the team's end-of-season press conference following Atlanta's second-straight 7-9 finish.

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2020 Falcons Schedule

Click below to view the full schedule and learn more about ticket options for the 2020 season.

NFL.com: NFL's 10 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, NFL.com 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.

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