Early Bird Report: Why better protection for Matt Ryan is so important for Falcons

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It's no secret that the Falcons want to do a better job protecting Matt Ryan after the only NFL MVP in the organization's history was sacked a career-high 48 times in 2019. Despite the large volume of pressure Ryan faced last season and missing one game due to injury, he led all NFL quarterbacks with 408 completions.

Ryan's importance to the Falcons can't be overstated, and Pro Football Focus recently unveiled a stat that helps illustrate why it's so important the team keeps him protected. According to PFF, Ryan had the second-biggest drop in passing grade while under pressure among all quarterbacks last season. Ryan's -48.0 difference in passing grade was behind only Sam Darnold, whose passing grade dropped 50.2 points when under pressure.

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"The 2019 campaign was rough for Ryan and the Falcons, and a lot of it had to do with troubles along the offensive line," PFF's Ben Linsey writes. "The Falcons attempted to bolster the group up front with the addition of not one but two first-round offensive linemen — Chris Lindstrom at right guard and Kaleb McGary at right tackle — but it wasn't smooth sailing for the rookies.

"Lindstrom showed some promise, but he played in only five games all season due to injury. McGary, on the other hand, struggled mightily in his first season of action. He was the only tackle in the NFL to allow double-digit sacks and quarterback hits. Meanwhile, Ryan had a top-five passing grade in the NFL from a clean pocket in 2019."

 That last sentence is perhaps the most important as it pertains to the Falcons in 2020. Ryan is still among the very best quarterbacks in the league when he's got time to set his feet and step into a throw. If the Falcons do provide him with more time this season, the whole offense will benefit greatly.

To read the rest of PFF's article, click here.

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

NFL.com: Maurice Jones-Drew ranks running backs

Todd Gurley is in an interesting spot as he prepares for his first season with the Atlanta Falcons. The former NFL Offensive Player of the Year is generally believed to be trending downward due to a knee injury, but the only evidence for that is a relatively poor 2019 season in which he still topped 1,000 total yards and scored 14 touchdowns – not too shabby.

With more weapons around him than he's ever had before, Gurley won't have to shoulder the load the way he did in Los Angeles. It wouldn't be surprising at all if Gurley has a bounce-back year this fall, but there seems to be some hesitation among those in the national media to declare him one of the top backs in the league.

Former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew continued that trend in a recent ranking for NFL.com. He ranked Gurley 19th among all running backs entering the season, but he does explain that he expects big things from the former Rams star during his first season in Atlanta.

"For the first time in his career, Gurley won't be the featured player in the offense," Jones-Drew writes. "The Falcons' offense goes through Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Co., so expect Gurley to face fewer loaded boxes than he did with the Rams. The first-year Falcons back should have a big year in 2020, but he sits at No. 19 here because there are simply too many mouths to feed."

To see the rest of the running backs on Jones-Drew's list and how he ranks them, click here.

ESPN: Top-rated QBs in "Madden NFL 21"

While it remains to be seen when actual football will come back into our lives, fans of the "Madden" series will have a new game in their hands sometime soon. The newest iteration of the EA Sports series, "Madden NFL 21," will be released in the near future and some of the ratings for the games top players have begun to be announced.

Specifically, a few of the game's top quarterbacks were announced on Monday, and Matt Ryan is among them. The Falcons' former MVP has the seventh-best rating among league quarterbacks, beginning as an 87-overall player in the game.

"Ryan dropped two ratings points and moved up one spot from his start last season (89 overall, eighth overall) after a season where he had his highest interception total (14) since 2015," ESPN's Michael Rothstein.

Chiefs quarterback and reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is the highest-rated player at the position and part of the "Madden 99 Club." Russell Wilson (97 overall) and Lamar Jackson (94 overall) are just behind Mahomes at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, while a pair of NFC South quarterbacks, Drew Brees (93 overall) and Tom Brady (90 overall) round out the rest of the top five.

It's crazy just how loaded the Falcons' division is at the quarterback position, and "Madden" agrees.

To see the rest of the quarterbacks with top rankings in the upcoming game, click here.

ESPN: Barnwell ranks NFL offensive weapons

Throughout much of the Matt Ryan Era, the Atlanta Falcons have fielded one of the NFL's consistently productive offenses. That figures to again be the case in 2020, despite some new faces taking the place of old ones.

Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst are the noteworthy offseason acquisitions, but Laquon Treadwell and Matt Hennessy should have roles within the unit next season. In a piece for ESPN, Bill Barnwell ranked the offensive weapons for each NFL team. The Falcons have trended down offensively in recent years, at least in Barnwell's opinion, and that continues in this recent piece.

After Barnwell ranked the Falcons third on this list in 2018, and 10th entering last season, he's got Atlanta at No. 12 in the latest iteration.

"The Falcons are in transition as they try to shift badly needed resources from their offense to their defense," Barnwell writes. "They've downgraded by dropping from Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper to Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst, although I'm optimistic about the former first-round pick Hurst's chances of repeating Hooper's production with the expanded role. Running back Todd Gurley is likely an upgrade on the oft-injured Devonta Freeman and will certainly be better as a receiver. Gurley has a high ceiling thanks to this offensive line and a low floor as a result of his knee condition; he could be an Offensive Player of the Year candidate or he could sputter through five games and miss the rest of the year.

"The Falcons have their core at wide receiver with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, although Jones' production dropped slightly from a league-high 104.8 receiving yards per game in 2018 to 92.9 yards per contest last season. Ridley's season-long numbers and snap rate were virtually identical, but he went from playing 16 games to 13. Prorated to 16 games, Ridley would have posted a 78-1,065-9 line, and while you can't count on perfect health, he should be able to top those marks without Hooper in the fold."

To see the rest of Barnwell's list, including which team he lists at No. 1 and where the other NFC South teams fall, click here.

ESPN: NFL won't allow jersey swaps in 2020

According to a report by ESPN, the NFL sent a new set of league protocols to teams in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Among the new protocols is a restriction on post-game jersey swaps between players.

"Jersey exchanges have gained in popularity in recent years, and their elimination was met with immediate derision from some prominent players on social media," ESPN's Kevin Seifert writes. "San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted that it was a 'perfect example of NFL thinking in a nutshell,' noting that players will 'engage in a full contact game' only to find that it isn't safe to exchange jerseys. Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson tweeted that it was 'DAMN SILLY.'"

The new protocols also involved other measures such as multiple pre-game temperature checks for coaches and players, restrictions on the number of people granted access to the field and mask requirements for certain people.

To see the rest of the changes reported by ESPN, click here.

PFF.com: Best/worst case scenarios for NFL teams

One of the things that makes the NFL such an entertaining and exciting league is the level of variability in a team's success from one season to the next. Every offseason fan bases can talk themselves into why the upcoming year will be their year, and there's enough turnover among playoff teams each season to make those hopes plausible.

The Falcons are one such team who have enough on-paper talent to make a run at the playoffs after a two-year absence. With an offense still led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and a defense that has been re-tooled in an effort to improve some key areas, the Falcons will look to build upon their strong finish to the 2019 season and put together a memorable 2020.

Pro Football Focus recently ran simulations for each team in the league, providing a 10th percentile outcome (the low-end expectation) and a 90th percentile outcome (the high-end expectation) for every team's record. When it comes to Atlanta, PFF believes the low projection is a 5-11 record while a 10-6 record is a reasonable high-end mark.

"It seems that a whole lot of people have forgotten that Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL," Ben Linsey writes of how the Falcons can reach their best projected record. "The Ryan-Julio Jones–Calvin Ridley connection clicks all season and several of the young players along the offensive line progress to the point that gives Ryan adequate protection to find his wide receivers. Defensively, those young cornerbacks do take steps forward, and free-agent acquisition Dante Fowler Jr. (career-high 73.3 pass-rushing grade in 2019) continues his upward trajectory as a pass-rusher to serve as a nice upgrade over Vic Beasley Jr."

The NFC South figures to be one of the league's toughest divisions next season, and PFF's projections back that up with both New Orleans and Tampa Bay having double-digit wins in their 90th percentile projections. Even if the Falcons put everything together this fall, they will be in for some well-fought games.

To see the rest of PFF's projections for NFL teams this season as well as the rest of what Linsey has to say about the Falcons, click here.

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