FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today's Early Bird Report includes why Austin Hooper's game could continue to elevate under Dirk Koetter.
Now a Pro Bowler, Falcons tight end Austin Hooper could potentially have a meatier role in the offense under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. As ESPN's Vaughn McClure notes in a recent piece, Koetter has long utilized the tight end position as a key part of his scheme, and he will have a talented capable player to work with in Hooper.
The last time Koetter was in Atlanta – as the Falcons' offensive coordinator from 2012-14 – he had Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez at his disposal. In his two seasons working with Koetter in 2012-13, Gonzalez caught 176 passes for 1,789 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"I definitely think that's encouraging," Hooper told McClure about Koetter's use of Gonzalez. "Looks like he likes to work [the tight end] into the game plan. I watched a few games of Tony G. back in the day. He's just consistent, man. Anytime the ball got thrown to him, he made the catches every time. He's the consummate pro -- a Hall of Famer."
To read the rest of McClure's piece on Hooper and Koetter's offense, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
ESPN: Mike Smith walking away from coaching
Former Falcons head coach Mike Smith was relieved of his duties as Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator midway through the season. According to ESPN's Jenna Laine, Smith told "The Opening Drive" on SiriusXM Tuesday morning that he does not plan on coaching again.
"I've been very blessed to have the opportunity to coach in the National Football League, and I've enjoyed every minute of it," Smith said. "I think, for me and my family, it's time for us to look at some adventures and have a lot of things that we'd like to do, that I'd like to do.
"I'm looking forward to what those adventures bring because it's going to be a lot of fun. I've been in this league and coached a long time, and I think it's time to go do something different."
During his seven seasons in Atlanta Smith led the Falcons to unprecedented sustained success and stability, including presiding over the franchise's first back-to-back winning seasons. Smith was 66-46 during his time with the Falcons and led Atlanta to the playoffs four times, including one NFC Championship Game appearance.
ESPN: Biggest looming free agent decisions for all 32 teams
Atlanta will have a number of decisions to make on the free agent front in the coming months, but which decision is the biggest? According to ESPN's Vaughn McClure, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is the looming free agent the Falcons should be most focused on.
"General manager Thomas Dimitroff said signing Jarrett to an extension is the top priority, though those talks were put off during the season," McClure writes. "Jarrett could get as much as $17 million per year in a new deal. The Falcons just have to find a way to be creative with it so they have enough cap room for other priorities, such as taking care of wide receiver Julio Jones and upgrading the offensive line. Franchising Jarrett could be an option, but that seems unlikely based on the Falcons' history."
To see which other free agent decisions teams have, click here.
CBS Sports: Mock drafts
The Falcons have their revamped coaching staff in place and will now look to address their roster over the coming weeks and months. Outside of free agency, the NFL draft will be the most important way to bolster Atlanta's depth and address any problem areas.
CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson has released a couple of mock drafts since the start of the new year, and he has the Falcons adding to their defensive line with the No. 14 pick. In his first mock draft, Wilson has Atlanta taking Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver. In his most recent mock draft, Wilson has the Falcons landing Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. His reasoning for both picks is fairly similar.
"Grady Jarrett was a beast this season but he could use some help along the defensive line," Wilson says of his Lawrence pick. "And Lawrence could end up being the best player to come from this dominant Clemson defensive line."
ESPN: Our picks for rookies of the year and all-rookie team
Calvin Ridley put together a very strong first NFL season for the Falcons, catching 64 passes for 821 yards and a franchise rookie record 10 touchdowns.
His 10 touchdowns were the most among all NFL rookie wide receivers, so it's little surprise that Ridley earned himself a spot on ESPN's All-Rookie team for the 2018 season.
"Six of Ridley's 10 receiving touchdowns this season came over the course of the season's first month, but the guy put the ball in the end zone more than any other rookie wideout," ESPN notes.
The other rookie wide receiver to be named to the list was DJ Moore, who the Panthers selected just two spots ahead of Ridley in the 2018 NFL Draft. This is a blooming NFC South rivalry that should be fun to watch for years to come.
AJC: Every question you have about Super Bowl 53 answered
As the host city for Super Bowl LIII, Atlanta will be bustling in the coming weeks. For those who want to answers to any question they may have about the Big Game, Rose Kennedy of The AJC has a list of information that covers a wide array of topics.
To read that piece, click here.
AJC: New coaches may help, but it's still about the players
With new offensive and special teams coordinators in place, and with Dan Quinn taking over the defensive coordinator role, the Falcons will have a new coaching structure in place heading into the 2019 season. But how much will that actually impact the on-field product? While it is certain to have a decent impact, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Cunningham believes it ultimately still comes down to the players.
"Each of the new coaches has a long, solid track record of success in the NFL," Cunningham writes. "Two of them are former NFL head coaches. One of them is the head coach, and Quinn has the best track record of them all.
"There may be something to adding new voices and ideas, as Quinn said. I say it won't mean much if the Falcons don't have the right players to put their big plans into action. Right now, they don't."
To read the rest of Cunningham's piece, click here.
ESPN: Sources: Sarkisian turns down Cardinals to rejoin Alabama
After spending two seasons at the NFL level, it appears Steve Sarkisian is heading back to the college ranks. According to a report by ESPN's Dianna Russini, Sarkisian turned down an offer to become the Arizona Cardinals' offensive coordinator to accept the same role with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Sarkisian spent one season with the Crimson Tide prior to joining the Falcons after their 2016 Super Bowl run. He took over the role of offensive coordinator for Alabama in the 2016 national championship game after Lane Kiffin accepted the head coaching position at Florida Atlantic.
To read the rest of ESPN's report, click here.