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Early Bird Report: Where Todd Gurley ranks among top NFL RBs

Today’s Early Bird Report includes a ranking from Pro Football Focus of the top running backs entering the 2020 season

The Falcons have high expectations for Todd Gurley after signing him as a free agent this offseason. Although questions still linger about the status of his knee, based on reports that followed him around in Los Angeles, there's no question that Gurley was one of the best players in the league when fully healthy.

Atlanta is hoping he's closer to the Gurley who dominated defenses in 2017 and 2018, but after a relative down season in 2019, there are those in the national media who are more skeptical. Pro Football Focus still sees the upside in Gurley, but the site ranks him 20th among all running backs entering the 2020 season, signaling that they are a bit trepidatious.

"He graded well as a runner this past season in Los Angeles' offense," PFF's Ben Linsey writes. "His 79.1 rushing grade ranked ninth at the position, with the majority of the blame for his 3.8 yards per attempt falling on the shoulders of a Rams' offensive line that went through plenty of injury issues in its own right. The real decline comes when he gets out into the open field, particularly as a receiver. Gurley's 34.8 receiving grade in 2019 points to a player who just isn't as dynamic as the running back who put up an 87.8 receiving grade during the 2017 season. However, he can produce as the lead back in Atlanta if healthy. That's just a big if."

Even if Gurley isn't an elite player this fall, he should still provide the Falcons with an upgrade at running back. Gurley scored 14 touchdowns last season, which were a great deal more than any single Falcons back scored, and he still gained over 1,000 combined yards on offense.

To see the rest of PFF's running back rankings entering the 2020 season, click here.

Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today: Ranking the NFL's top WR duos

It's well known the Falcons have one of the league's top receiver duos with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but is it possible they actually are the very best tandem in the NFL?

Former pro quarterback and analyst David Carr certainly seems to think so. In a recent piece for the website ranking the best receiver duos in the league, Carr has Jones and Ridley right up there at the top.

"I can't say enough about Julio Jones' dominance over the last six seasons," Carr writes. "Since 2014, Jones has 623 receptions and 9,388 receiving yards (both most in the NFL), and he's posted six consecutive seasons with at least 1,300 receiving yards, which ties Torry Holt for the longest such streak in NFL history. He can do it all even when double- or triple-teamed, which he often is, providing Matt Ryan a reliable target in tight windows. The one knock against Jones over the last few seasons has been his relative lack of touchdown production, an area in which Ridley has excelled, logging 17 TD receptions in his first two seasons. The third-year pro, who thrives after the catch and has improved his route running, is hungrier than ever to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the first time. He can accomplish that feat with Jones garnering so much attention from defenses. After ranking fourth in receiving yards among WR duos last season, Jones and Ridley are poised to climb the ladder in 2020."

Jones said Thursday that he believes Ridley can easily reach 1,000 yards and even exceed that threshold this fall, which would go a long way into cementing their status in the eyes of fans and media members.

Carr's list also provides further proof of just how crazy talented the NFC South is at receiver. Not only are Jones and Ridley No. 1 on the list, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin ranks third and the New Orleans Saints' duo of Mike Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders ranks fourth. It's going to be a track-meet division, that's for sure.

ESPN: Top training camp battles for NFL teams

By signing Todd Gurley this offseason, the Falcons shored up the starting running back position with a player who has previously been among the best in the league.

While the Falcons feel confident in Gurley's health for the 2020 season, there are questions about the status of his knee, externally. That makes the depth Atlanta has cultivated at running back potentially crucial this fall. The Falcons like the depth they have in the backfield, and all three players behind Gurley should have a role for the team.

When previewing the top training camp battle in Atlanta this year, ESPN's Vaughn McClure pointed to the running back position.

"Sure, Todd Gurley II is expected to be the primary guy as the most decorated of the backs," McClure writes. "But remember, Gurley was released by the Rams, and there were concerns about the health of his left knee. That means the guys behind Gurley -- Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison -- have to be prepared if thrust into a starting role while also fighting for backup reps. The Falcons are sure to be wise and not overload Gurley regardless. Hill and Ollison both run with physicality, while Smith is a change-of-pace, smaller, quicker guy who has shown flashes when not injured."

The Falcons believe they can find roles for all three players without having to define a specific pecking order, as coach Dan Quinn previously explained.

"They may be in different roles and make sure we are just going to put the guys in the very best spots," Quinn said. "… That whole group of guys I certainly think we will have to try to find roles for everyone and then make sure we are really clear on what they do best and try to feature them in those ways."

To see the top training camp battle for every other NFL team, click here. Top 25 interior offensive linemen entering 2020

Preseason rankings are inherently more of an acknowledgement of what a player has accomplished throughout his career, mixed with a bit of projection, than they are a guarantee of performance ability. Nevertheless, there's no denying that Alex Mack can still play as well as nearly any NFL offensive lineman.

Pro Football Focus writer Ben Linsley agrees, ranking Mack his fourth-best interior offensive lineman entering the 2020 season. Mack has one year remaining on his current contract with the Falcons, so it's unclear what the future holds for him in Atlanta, but he's been incredibly solid since joining the organization since 2016 and figures to be once again this fall.

"It's always interesting to hear who some of the best players in the NFL point out as their toughest individual matchups, and run-stuffing extraordinaire Damon 'Snacks' Harrison singled out Mack as one of his toughest matchups on PFF's 2 for 1 Drafts podcast this offseason. 'To me, Alex Mack was the best offensive lineman I ever played against,' Harrison said when prompted on who some of his toughest NFL assignments were.

"Mack may be entering his age-35 season in 2020, but the guy is still getting the job done at a high level. Despite a slight dip in play on a struggling Falcons offensive line in 2019, Mack still put up a top-10 overall grade at the center position, and his body of work speaks for itself. Over the last decade, Mack put up top-five marks in pass-blocking grade and run-blocking grade at the center position, and he's been dominant in an Atlanta run game that has prioritized outside zone ever since he joined the team in 2016. There may be several question marks along that offensive line heading into 2020, but Mack isn't one of them."

The Falcons are hoping to have a couple more names on this list going into the 2021 season, given the ability Chris Lindstrom showed in his limited time on the field as a rookie and the talent Matt Hennessy displayed in college.

To see Pro Football Focus's entire list of the top interior offensive linemen entering 2020, click here. Projecting NFL's 2020 stat leaders

Julio Jones has not finished outside of the top three in receiving yards since the 2013 season, when he played only five games due to injury. Twice in his career, Jones has finished a season as the NFL's leading receiver, and recent projection from NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund picks the Falcons' All-Pro to do so once again.

Frelund's projection landed at Jones leading the way with 1,510 yards in 2020, a number he's surpassed three other times in his career.

"The return of the deep ball in Atlanta?! Last season, Matt Ryan only attempted a deep pass (20-plus air yards, per Next Gen Stats) on 8.9 percent of his throws -- the quarterback's lowest rate since 2016," Frelund writes. "And in the 2019 campaign, despite the fact that Atlanta's intended starting O-line played fewer than 10 percent of snaps together, Jones still managed to earn the second-most receiving first downs in the league (77). Given better health on the offensive line, the offseason addition of tight end Hayden Hurst and the intense, high-flying competition we all expect from the NFC South, Jones slightly edges out Michael Thomas in projected receiving yards. The Falcons star earns more than 1,500 receiving yards in 55.1 percent of simulations."

Frelund also notes that Jones surpassed the 99 receptions he recorded in 2019 in 58.3 percent of her projections, and Matt Ryan ranked fifth among NFL quarterbacks with a 12-percent rate of leading the league in passing yards this season.

To see the rest of Frelund's projections for the 2020 season, click here.

The Ringer: Ranking NFL pass-catching groups

If Calvin Ridley truly does take the next step in his development in Year 3, the Falcons will have the best receiver duo they've had since Julio Jones and Roddy White played together at the beginning of the last decade. Ridley is hard at work to make sure that happens, but a pass-catching unit takes more than two players to be successful.

Behind Ridley and Jones, there are a number of players who are looking to make a statement for Atlanta for a variety of different reasons. Hayden Hurst seeks to prove he can be a No. 1 tight end for a team, Russell Gage is fighting to claim the Falcons' slot receiver role for himself and Todd Gurley has the opportunity to renew his reputation as one of the game's best all-around running backs.

Perhaps it's that those players have yet to prove anything while playing for Atlanta that Danny Heifetz ranks the Falcons' group of pass catchers outside of the top 10 in a recent ranking of every team's collective pass-catching unit. Heifetz based his ranking on each team's six primary receivers, regardless of the position they play, while also factoring the total depth behind them. The Falcons come in at No. 11 and are third among the four NFC South teams.

"This one gets thin fast," Heifetz writes. "Julio Jones is among the league's best receivers on the field and the NFL's most respected players in the locker room, and Ridley may emerge as one of the NFL's top no. 2 receivers behind him this year. Offseason acquisition Hurst, a former college baseball player turned Aflac trivia question (who did Baltimore draft seven picks before Lamar Jackson?), finally gets to start this year. After those three, this team has little proven sources of receiving production. Gurley will have to show he can catch passes in Atlanta's offense after Sean McVay designed a system around him in Los Angeles."

Atlanta ranked third among all NFL teams in passing yards per game in 2019 but falling behind early in games undoubtedly played a role in that ranking as the Falcons had to throw the ball more while attempting to catch up. Still, the Falcons have been one of the most successful passing offenses with Matt Ryan at quarterback, and although he's got some new faces around him, that should against be the case in 2020.

To see the rest of Heifetz's rankings of pass-catching groups, click here.

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