Today's Early Bird Report includes the breakout possibility for Takk McKinley in his third year as well as a prediction that the Falcons make the playoffs.
The Falcons are hoping for an improved pass rush in 2019. Many of the same faces return from last year's group, including Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley and Jack Crawford. A couple of new faces – most notably, Tyeler Davison and Adrian Clayborn – could provide a nice push, but a breakout campaign might really get things going.
ESPN's Vaughn McClure picked McKinley to be his breakout Falcons player for 2019. The third-year end led all Falcons with seven sacks last season, and he's got the right combination of skills to take the next jump.
"The 2017 first-round pick came to the league with a chip on his shoulder, and it's gotten bigger based on McKinley paying close attention to outside criticism," McClure writes. "But it seems McKinley is learning to take his frustrations out on opponents rather than voicing his anger on social media. His progress and potential as a pass-rusher has head coach/defensive coordinator Dan Quinn excited."
McKinley entered training camp fully healthy for the first time in his NFL career, and Quinn says the pass rusher looks lighter and further ahead than he was at this point last season.
To read the rest of ESPN's predicted breakout players, click here.
Here are some other articles for Falcons fans to check out today:
NFL.com: 2019 NFL playoff predictions
After a year watching the postseason from the outside, the Falcons are preparing to make a run to the playoffs for the third time in four years. Injuries largely derailed Atlanta's quest for three-straight playoff trips last season, but with a little more injury luck the Falcons have the talent to make the single-elimination tournament. NFL.com's panel of experts believe Atlanta can do that. Six of the experts pegged the Falcons to earn the NFC's No. 2 wild card spot.
"Remember, it was injuries that doomed Atlanta last season -- and the offense is still loaded, with Dirk Koetter back in charge," NFL.com's Judy Battista writes. "The Falcons will have to claw for this spot in a brutal division and against one of the league's toughest schedules."
To see the rest of NFL.com's playoff predictions, click here.
AJC: Falcons goal to reach deal with Julio before season
With just one more preseason game remaining until Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season, the Falcons remain engaged in contract talks with Julio Jones and his representatives on an extension for the All-Pro receiver.
D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to Falcons owner Arthur Blank for his thoughts on the ongoing negotiations, and he expressed hope that a deal would be struck before the start of the season.
"I would hope so, but I don't know that," Blank told Ledbetter. "We'll have to let things take their course. I know that we are definitely in serious negotiations. It's our goal and their goal as well to get it done before the start of the season."
Jones is fresh off of a 2018 season in which he led all NFL receivers with 1,677 yards. He has yet to play this preseason, but Jones has given all indication he will be ready to go in Week 1.
To see what else Blank had to say to The AJC, click here.
ESPN: Predicting the top 100 players of 2019
Atlanta has more talent on its roster than last year's results would indicate. Hopefully, more of the Falcons' true talent is on display in 2019 and the team can avoid the serious injuries that haunted them in 2018.
If that happens, there are several Falcons who are capable of being among the best players in the NFL. In recent prediction of the top 100 NFL players for the 2019 season, a panel of ESPN experts were asked to rate players on how good they expected them to be this fall. After calculating the rankings, the Falcons had four players make the list.
All-Pro receiver Julio Jones led the way for Atlanta at No. 7, and the man throwing him the ball, Matt Ryan, was next on the list at No. 37. Two young defensive players showed up further down the list with linebacker Deion Jones at No. 84 and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett at No. 88.
"Jones, a one-time Pro Bowler, quickly established himself as one of the elite coverage linebackers in the game, if not the best," ESPN's Vaughn McClure writes of Deion Jones. "His speed helps cover up mistakes made by others. Said Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher of Jones: 'He's already a star.' Jones should be fully healthy this season after suffering a broken foot in 2018."
To see the rest of ESPN's future top 100 rankings, click here.
SI.com: What we know about Luck's decision to retire
The NFL world was rocked Saturday night when ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted that 29-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring from the game of football.
A four-time Pro Bowler, Luck was viewed as a generational talent when coming out of Stanford, and he was among the league's best quarterbacks for stretches during his career. Luck also sustained a number of injuries and was sacked 174 times since entering the league in 2012. Those injuries appear to have played a big role in Luck's decision to walk about, and SI.com's Albert Breer contextualized that thinking pretty well in his piece about the retirement.
"Put yourself in Luck's shoes for a moment: If this calf injury, which became an ankle injury (when we talked four weeks ago, he referred to it exclusively as an ankle injury), was not only creating pain, but also confusion, of what would you be reminded," Breer asks. "Would you be able to ignore the last four years of your life? Or would you immediately be thinking, here we go again?"
The Falcons play the Colts in Week 3, but it appears the team will not prepare to face backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the wake of Luck's announcement.
NFL.com: Takeaways from the preseason
The Falcons dropped their fourth game of the preseason, losing to the Washington Redskins 19-7. There were some pretty solid individual efforts during the game, as well as some things the team would like to get cleaned up before the games start to matter in two weeks.
Grant Gordon reviewed the game for NFL.com, providing his thoughts on the action. His biggest takeaway from the night: The Falcons might have another potent 1-2 punch at the running back position with the way Ito Smith is playing.
"Tevin Coleman has left [sic] for San Francisco," Gordon writes. "Devonta Freeman has returned for the Falcons, but over the last few seasons, when healthy, Freeman and Coleman have provided a game-breaking combination for the Falcons out of the backfield. By all accounts, second-season back Ito Smith is ready to take over for Coleman. On Thursday, he was arguably the most impressive offensive performer for the Falcons, nabbing 23 yards on five carries along with a nine-yard catch in a first half's worth of playing time. Smith's evening included a five-yard first-half touchdown run. On just about every successful NFL team, you need not one but two good running backs and the Falcons had that the last four years with Coleman and Freeman. They should have that again in 2019 with Smith and Freeman."
To see the rest of NFL.com's takeaways from Thursday night's preseason action, click here.
Preseason power rankings
It's time for some preseason power rankings, which are almost as pointless as the preseason, itself. But, seeing as how I'm here to keep you abreast of all things Falcons, we're going to shine a light on them anyway!
Both ESPN and NFL.com released their sets of preseason power rankings this week, and each site has the Falcons near the middle of the pack. ESPN's power rankings have the Falcons sitting at No. 16 and also comes with an added wrinkle of naming a player or coach who is on the proverbial hot seat entering the season. That play, in ESPN reporter Vaughn McClure's mind is Vic Beasley.
"Beasley hasn't been the same player the past two years that he was in 2016, when he led the league with 15.5 sacks," McClure writes. "But Falcons coach Dan Quinn, a defensive line guru and the new defensive playcaller, firmly believes he can get the best out of Beasley. Beasley himself said he expects nothing less than double-digit sacks. If he doesn't reach that and fails to be a disruptive force, don't expect the Falcons to sign the former first-rounder to a long-term extension as he enters his $12.81 million, fifth-year option."
To see the rest of ESPN's power rankings, click here.
Over at NFL.com, Dan Hanzua has taken over the ranking responsibilities from Elliot Harrison. He is also lukewarm on Atlanta this preseason, giving the Falcons the No. 17 spot on his list.
"Gregg Williams was not going to give Matt Ryan an easy time of it on Thursday night," Hanzua writes. "The Jets defensive coordinator sent all sorts of heat at the former MVP, who was sacked three times and under constant pressure during his four possessions. The positive spin for the Falcons is that they did not have what they believe will be their full starting five on the field to protect Ryan, which -- while we're here -- makes you wonder why franchise cornerstones like Ryan are on the field in the first place for these exhibitions. Ryan wasn't spooked by the pressure, by the way. He completed nine straight passes at one point against New York's subpar secondary, and he would have had a touchdown if not for a pair of end-zone drops."
To see the rest of NFL.com's power rankings, click here.
CBS Sports: 5 bold predictions for the Atlanta Falcons
With only two preseason games remaining for Atlanta, the 2019 season is practically here. Fans and media members have begun to get an idea of how the Falcons are shaping up for the fall, which gives somewhat of a basis for bold predictions.
CBS Sports' Dan Schneler isn't dipping his toe into the bold prediction pool; he's diving in head first. I'm not going to reveal all of Schneler's predictions for Atlanta this season, but you can click here if you'd like to see them.
His first two predictions involve an offense that he believes will make the jump from good to elite in 2019. Schneler thinks Matt Ryan will once again reach the 4,000-yard mark, continuing the longest such streak in the NFL, and will top 5,000 yards for the first time in his career. The second prediction Schneler makes is that Devonta Freeman's return this season will vault Atlanta's offense into the top five.
"Freeman's running style is hard to find a comparison for," Schneler writes. "He runs violently to the point where it may be one factor in how many games he has missed over the course of his career. However, his violent running style is also what makes him so special when he's on the field. Freeman's ability to maneuver in and out of holes is exactly what Atlanta could draw up for the position to fit their offensive system's blocking scheme. It's why they re-signed him to lucrative multi-year contract prior to when his rookie deal ran out."
ESPN: Training camp MVPs for all 32 NFL teams
The most exciting preseason competition for the Falcons has been at the running back spot, and that's largely been due to the emergence of Brian Hill. The former fifth-round running back has made the most of his second opportunity with the Falcons, pushing his backfield teammates every chance he's gotten.
Hill is the Falcons' leading rusher this preseason, gaining 92 yards and scoring one touchdown on 23 carries. He's also caught one touchdown pass and drawn positive reviews from the coaching staff about the improvements he's made to that aspect of his game.
For what he's done this preseason, Hill was named the Falcons' camp MVP by ESPN's Vaughn McClure.
"He's trying to win time in the backfield behind Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith," McClure writes. "Hill is a bigger back and is also competing with rookie Qadree Ollison for a role. Coach Dan Quinn has been impressed with how Hill has improved catching. We'll see if it's enough to earn a spot on the 53."
Hill's next opportunity to leave an impression during an actual game will come on Thursday night when the Falcons welcome the Washington Redskins to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.