Early Bird Report: Why Julio Jones may be the secret to winning your fantasy league

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Today’s Early Bird Report includes a strong argument for why Julio Jones is the player who will help you win your fantasy football league.

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The arrival of preseason football also means that fantasy football season is heating up as well. At this point of the year, avid fantasy fans are pouring through countless articles and rankings trying to determine whether Christian McCaffrey or James White is the better PPR option (it’s McCaffrey FWIW).

Often, the key to winning a fantasy league can come down to finding one or two breakout stars in the mid to late rounds of the draft. This year, however, one superstar in particular may make the difference between going home a champion or claiming “The Sacko.”

The Ringer’s Danny Heifetz recently made a compelling case for why Julio Jones is that superstar player hiding in plain site who could win you your league.

“Jones is not being drafted like fantasy owners believe his touchdown woes and consistency issues are over, but he’s been the most consistent player in the league over the past half-decade, and there is evidence suggesting his touchdown drought won’t return,” Heifetz writes. “On average in standard scoring leagues, he is being drafted no. 12.8 overall and as the fourth wide receiver behind Hopkins, Adams, and Michael Thomas, according to Fantasy Football Calculator and Fantasy Pros. All of those guys are great receivers, but none of them have Jones’s absurd receiving-yard floor (he hasn’t been outside the top three in five years!), which is far more consistent year to year than touchdowns. Jones has led the league in yards per route run for four years in a row, the most predictive efficiency stat for receivers. He’s also the rare second-round pick with upside. The other receivers on the board could all score more fantasy points than they did last year, but it would be difficult for them to raise their game to another level. Not Jones. Even if he doesn’t maintain his pace from the second half of last year, which would have given him 14 touchdowns, he’s still completely in range to hit double digits for the second time in his career now that he’s reunited with Koetter.”

Heifetz goes into great detail on why Jones is the smart-man’s investment to win your league in 2019, and I encourage everyone to check out his piece.

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

ESPN: Is Julio trying to reset the receiver market?

While Jones has been out on the field practicing with his teammates during training camp, his representatives are busy undergoing contract negotiations with the Falcons. Both sides appear pleased with the talks thus far and remain adamant that a deal will be struck.

What Jones’ new contract could look like is anybody’s guess. One of the best receivers in NFL history, Jones has proven worthy of every dollar he receives, but it remains to be seen if his new deal will reset or even shatter the receiver contract market.

ESPN’s Vaughn McClure recently looked into how Jones could set the market for years to come.

“Jones, who signed his revised contract last July 27 with an assurance the team would conduct good-faith negotiations on another extension in 2019, had to wait a CBA-mandated 12 months before he could renegotiate again,” McClure writes. “That window has cleared, so he sits awaiting an extension with two years and more than $21 million remaining on his contract. It wouldn’t seem out of the realm of possibility for him to seek a four-year, $100 million extension with $70 million guaranteed to distance himself from the others. But Jones probably wouldn’t want a structure similar to [Michael] Thomas, as the Saints have the luxury of getting out of the deal after a few years.”

McClure went into further detail on Jones’ contract negotiations and spoke with the receiver, himself. You can read the rest of McClure’s piece, here.

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ESPN: Five teams who are likely to improve in 2019

With a slew of important players back healthy off of injury, the Falcons are working hard to rebound from a 7-9 season in 2018. Their path to a potential third playoff berth in four years might be harder than it would seem at first glance, however.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell looked around the league and landed on five teams who are likely to improve from last year’s results, and two of those teams are in the NFC South – the Buccaneers and the Panthers.

Starting with the Panthers, who also finished with a 7-9 record after starting the season 6-2, Barnwell believes a healthier Cam Newton and a revamped defense will help Carolina prove much tougher than they did down the stretch last season. The Falcons play the Panthers in Week 11 and Week 14 this fall.

After a 5-11 record in 2018, the Buccaneers have undergone a series of changes this offseason. Bruce Arians is in at head coach, and Tampa Bay has (once again) made big moves in the draft and free agency to try and sure up its defense. The Buccaneers also brought in Todd Bowles to oversee the defense, and he will have a few new pieces to work with.

“Tampa may have upgraded by swapping out Gerald McCoy for Ndamukong Suh and Kwon Alexander for first-round pick Devin White, but it was already thin at defensive end before losing Jason Pierre-Paul, who is expected to miss most of the season with a neck injury,” Barnwell writes. “Few teams in the league are weaker on the edge than Tampa, which will need to depend on Suh and Todd Bowles' track record of creating pressure with blitzes to generate a steady pass rush. Tampa has seven defensive backs on rookie deals who were taken in one of the first three rounds of the draft, and Bowles will need to develop them into worthwhile contributors.”

The Falcons will face the Buccaneers in Week 12 and Week 17, and if Barnwell proves to be correct and Atlanta’s two division foes are indeed tougher in 2019, the path to the playoffs will be that much harder.

NFL.com: Julio Jones No. 9 in ranking of top 100 players

After leading the NFL in receiving yards last season, Julio Jones remains among the very best players in the league. Set to pass Roddy White as the Falcons’ all-time leading receiver in 2019, Jones’ reputation as a top wide receiver has spread far beyond Atlanta.

Jones was ranked No. 9 in the NFL Network’s “The Top 100 Players of 2019,” which aired on Wednesday evening. Jones was the second-highest wide receiver on the list, coming in two spots behind Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

“His consistency and his explosiveness and his just play strength I think is what separates him,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said on the television program. “They don’t make guys like him that are that big, that strong, that fast. And that’s what makes a guy like him fun to play against.”

Entering the 2018 season, Jones earned the No. 4 sport on the NFL Network’s ranking. This year, Jones’ ninth in the league, the Falcons’ offense is expected to again be among the best in the league. And with players like Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan, who was No. 69 in the same top 100 ranking, it’s easy to see why.

ESPN: Picking top bounce-back candidates

Desmond Trufant’s 2018 season was a showcase in resiliency. After struggling early on in the year with dropped interceptions and poor coverage, Trufant seemed to rebound during the second half of the season and end the year playing with his typical confidence.

Pro Football Focus gave Trufant and overall grade of 69.5 for his performance in 2018, which is their lowest grade for him to this point in his career. That makes Trufant a pretty solid bounce-back candidate for Atlanta in 2019, and ESPN’s Vaughn McClure chose him as such in a recent article.

“The Falcons' defense wasn't the same as a whole last season after injuries crippled the unit,” McClure writes. Trufant had some lapses -- most notably dropped potential interceptions -- but he's a player who has a swagger about him and needs to keep such confidence. If he can trust his technique and not worry about doing too much to make plays, he should bounce back. Not to mention there are young, hungry corners behind him in rookies Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller, which should keep Trufant on his game.”

To see who the prime bounce-back candidates are among the other NFL teams, click here.

AJC: Vic Beasley: ‘The time is now’

After back-to-back five-sack seasons, Vic Beasley will be one of the most important players for the Falcons’ defense in 2019. There may not be another player on the unit whose play could swing Atlanta’s fortunes more than Beasley, who could really energize the defense with a double-digit-sack campaign.

Entering his fifth season, Beasley is working to get the level of production he had in 2016, when he led the league with 15.5 sacks and was named an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. But although that may be the goal, Beasley’s focus is not in the past, it’s very much in the present.

“Look man, I’m going to continue to work hard,” Beasley told D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Regardless of what I’ve done over the past few years, I feel like, the time is now. I can’t get that time back. It is what it is. You know you have to build off that, learn from the past and continue to move forward.”

Beasley has spent time this offseason working with Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree, who has 20 sacks in his four NFL seasons. Beasley spoke with Ledbetter in greater detail about his mindset for this season, which you can read here.

CBS Sports: Inside Falcons camp

CBS Sports senior writer Pete Prisco spent a couple of days at the Falcons’ training camp. After watching and listening at the early practices, Prisco shared what he had learned about the Falcons’ upcoming season. One major point was the importance of rebuilding the offensive line, which Atlanta believes it has done.

"Winning football is about running the football when they know you are going to run the football," Matt Ryan told Prisco. "There's a confidence, a swagger, a toughness that is associated with that. When we are at our best, that's what we are doing, we are running the football effectively. We have great play-action passing off it. We have confidence to go throw it and win games that way too."

To see the rest of Prisco’s notes from Falcons camp, click here.

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