Early Bird Report: Warrick Dunn's advice to Devonta Freeman

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today’s Early Bird Report includes a look at the unique relationship between Warrick Dunn and Devonta Freeman.

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Devonta Freeman looks rejuvenated this summer. After missing all but two games due to injury last season, the Falcons’ starting running back has been one of the highlights during organized team activities in recent weeks.

When on the field, Freeman is one of the NFL’s top versatile running backs, but after suffering injuries in each of the last two seasons it will be important for him to stay on the field in 2019. That’s something former Falcons running back Warrick Dunn wants to see from Freeman as well.

In a well-done piece by ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, Freeman and Dunn discussed their relationship and how the former Falcons’ running back is advising Atlanta’s current one to think about his health.

"A lot of times, these guys always want to prove that they're tough or that they can get the tough yard, but sometimes you have to live for another down," Dunn told McClure. "My advice to Devonta was, 'You have to learn how to protect yourself at the same time. You're picking up tough yards, but you have to be smart and strategic about it.'

"To be a better runner, it's not always about, 'Let me run over guys.' It's 'How can I avoid the big hit so I can have longevity in this league?' And I just try to encourage him to become a better overall runner."

Prior to last season, Freeman had topped 1,000 offensive yards in three consecutive years. The two-time Pro Bowler has 4,921 total yards in his career and 37 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns.

To read the rest of McClure’s conversation with Dunn and Freeman, click here.

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

CBS Sports: Projecting NFC South win totals

We’re still more than a month away from NFL training camps firing up, so it’s incredibly difficult to predict how things will shake out when games finally return to our lives in the fall. Nevertheless, a little thing like time won’t stop people from making predictions about how the 2019 season will unfold.

CBS Sports’ Will Brinson offers his thoughts each year on whether teams will exceed or fall short of their projected win totals, and he shared his views on the NFC South in a recent piece. Vegas has set the Falcons’ 2019 win total at 8.5, and Brinson, albeit somewhat cautiously, believes Atlanta can exceed that number.

“Offensively, this is a loaded team,” Brinson writes. “Matt Ryan is great and has Dirk Koetter, a familiar face, as his OC. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley is off-the-charts dangerous. Austin Hooper is underrated and Devonta Freeman should be healthy. Adding Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary gives them talent all over the line. But boy do they need a hot start. The Falcons open up against the Vikings(road), Eagles (home), Colts (road) and Titans (home). That's tough. Then they get the Texans (road), Cardinals (road), Rams (home) and Seahawks (home). Sitting at 4-4 heading into the Week 9 bye without having played a single divisional game wouldn't be out of the question at all. I'm having them squeak by here but wouldn't want to bet it; 8-8 could absolutely happen.”

To see the rest of Brinson’s thoughts on the division and the Falcons, including his opinion of the team’s defense, click here.

ESPN: Gerald McCoy picks Panthers over Browns, Ravens

It appears the Falcons will still be seeing Gerald McCoy twice in 2019. Reports surfaced Monday afternoon that he was signing a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers after being released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this offseason.

“Carolina was a great fit for me,” McCoy texted ESPN’s Josina Anderson, according to a report by David Newton. "Being around the guys we just meshed & I love the instant chemistry we had. They have a tradition of having a great defense. I love the players & I believe in #1 [Cam Newton]. Ron Rivera is a proven coach & can't wait to get started."

In his nine NFL seasons, McCoy has recorded 296 tackles, 140 quarterbacks hits, 79 tackles for a loss and 54.5 sacks. The six-time Pro Bowler has five career sacks against the Falcons, the most of any team he’s faced in the NFL.

ESPN: Progress reports on all 32 first-round picks

The Falcons doubled down on improving their offensive line in the first round of this year’s draft, selecting guard Chris Lindstrom at No. 14 and tackle Kaleb McGary at No. 31. Thus far, the two players are gelling both on the field and off the field, but it’s still way too early to tell what to make of Atlanta’s first-round rookies.

In a piece for ESPN, however, Vaughn McClure shared his thoughts on the impressions the Lindstrom and McGary have made in their first few moments on the field.

“It's too early to truly make a judgment on offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, the Falcons' first-round draft picks,” McClure writes. “They are slowing [sic] getting worked in at right guard and right tackle, respectively. The real test will come when they put the pads on. Asked about his first impressions of his two new linemen, quarterback Matt Ryan said, ‘It's tough to tell when they're not in pads, but you can see by the way that they set, the way that they move off the ball, they're both athletic guys for as big as they are. They're into it. I really love how much that they like football.’”

To see how the rest of the league’s first-round picks are faring in their early NFL moments, click here.

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AJC: Quinn working on adding moves to McKinley’s pass rush

Falcons coach Dan Quinn is always looking for pass rushers, as he is fond of saying. But after not adding an established piece along the defensive line outside of Adrian Clayborn this offseason, Quinn, who has assumed defensive coordinator responsibilities, is betting on himself to help players like Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley improve. D. Orlando Ledbetter wrote about Quinn working with McKinley to add moves to his pass rush arsenal in a piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“His edge-setting and the way he runs stunts, he’s got this fantastic bull-rush and now we are adding the other part of rushes with his hands,” Quinn said after organized team activities. “I think when we complete that piece, we are going to have a really difficult player to deal with.”

To read Ledbetter’s piece on Quinn and McKinley, click here.

NFL.com: The greatest franchise QB for each NFC team

Statistically, Matt Ryan is the best quarterback the Falcons have ever had. He’s engineered the most successful run in franchise history, won the organization’s only NFL MVP Award and taken the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

That’s a pretty strong resume to be named the ultimate Falcons franchise quarterback, right? Of course it is, and NFL.com’s Ali Bhanpuri agrees with that assessment in a recent piece determining each NFC franchise’s greatest all-time passer.

“No offense to Steve Bartkowski, who had more seasons with 30-plus touchdowns (2) than I ever would've thought, but there's only one correct answer here,” Bhanpuri writes. “The organization rebounded surprisingly quickly from Michael Vick's suspension and imprisonment for his involvement in a dog-fighting operation, enduring only one losing season -- with Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich under center -- before selecting Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in 2008.

“Ryan has been everything the Falcons could've hoped for in a franchise QB. The 2016 MVP has the fifth-most touchdown passes (295) and third-most passing yards (46,720) since entering the NFL, and has led the Falcons to as many playoff appearances (six) in his 11 seasons as the team had produced in the previous 27. In May 2018, the team gave the veteran signal-caller 150 million reasons to stick around, so Falcons fans are in good hands for the foreseeable future.”

Ryan is coming off a season that was eerily similar to his MVP season in 2016. Last year, Ryan completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 4,924 yards with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

To see who else Bhanpuri selected as the all-time franchise quarterbacks for each NFC team, click here.

The Ringer: The top players coming off of injury

After missing much or all of last season, there are a number of players who should be healthy for the Falcons in 2019. That’s the case for many teams around the league, as injuries are an unfortunate and inherent part of the game.

But which returning players could make the biggest impact? The Ringer’s Danny Kelly gave this question some thought in a recent piece, and while the Falcons have several candidates who could make this list, Kelly settled on running back Devonta Freeman.

“The Falcons run game took a step back in efficiency last year in large part because the team lost its starter, Freeman, to a groin injury after just two games,” Kelly writes. “The veteran runner, who was never really healthy even in the two games he played, carried the ball just 14 times for 68 yards and zero touchdowns before hitting the injured reserve. Now he’s healthy and “having fun,” and ready to get back to his role as a dynamic tackle-breaking creator on the ground. The Falcons will need him to do just that; with former backfield mate Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco, the team’s depth chart is thin (with second-year pro Ito Smith, third-year pro Brian Hill, and rookie Qadree Ollison providing support). Freeman should carry a heavy load.”

Freeman was injured in the team’s season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. He returned in Week 5 against the Steelers but suffered an ultimately season-ending injury in that same game.

To see the other returning players who made Kelly’s list, click here.

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