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Ranking the positions: Falcons will face a handful of elite quarterbacks in 2017


*Editor's note: This is the second installment in a six-part series ranking the different position groups of the Falcons' 2017 opponents. The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed on represent those of the individual authors. Unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of the Atlanta Falcons' organization, front office staff, coaches and executives. *

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons are lucky to have Matt Ryan as their starting quarterback. No NFL exec, coach, player or fan in their right mind would ever dispute that.

But the Falcons' defense is especially lucky. Yes, the defense. Why?

Because that unit gets to face the 2016 Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year during practice day in and day out. Put another way: with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton on the schedule, facing Ryan better help.

And it doesn't end with just those guys. The Falcons will face several other Pro Bowl-caliber and top-tier quarterbacks in 2017. Here's my ranking of the top eight signal-callers Atlanta will line up against this season.

8. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Nov. 12 in Atlanta
  • Top plays in 2016: Watch here
  • Summary: Drafted in the fourth round, Prescott wasn't expected to see much action heading into 2016. Then Kellen Moore and Tony Romo went down with injuries – and the test is history. Prescott led the Cowboys to a 13-3 regular-season mark and, according to Pro Football Focus, fielded the highest passer rating (124.4) and highest completion percentage (76.1) on play action passes. Impressive stuff for a rookie.
  • Outlook: Prescott won't be catching opposing defensive coordinators by surprise this season, but still has receivers Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and rookie Ryan Switzer to help. That's when he's not handing off (or throwing) to Ezekiel Elliott.

7. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Atlanta and Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, in Tampa Bay
  • Top plays in 2016: Watch here
  • Summary: Winston improved in his second season, completing 345 of his 567 pass attempts for 4,090 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Bucs came close to earning to a playoff berth, finishing 9-7, but fell short. Expectations are higher heading into Winston's third year and there's no reason to believe he won't continue to improve, considering the new weapons at his disposal.
  • Outlook: Winston and the Bucs' passing game should be capable of picking up big chunks of yardage in 2017. Who's the biggest threat? They've added DeSean Jackson -- the league-leader in deep pass receiving yards last season, according to Pro Football Focus -- and rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin to go along with Mike Evans, the Bucs' No. 1 receiver. Evans has not only thrived since arriving in Tampa, but his numbers have improved each season. In 2016, Evans caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Bucs should be much improved – and a handful for the Falcons' defense.

6. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Charlotte and Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Atlanta
  • Top plays in 2016: Watch here
  • Summary: Yes, Newton regressed in 2016 following his MVP year, but there were several factors that played into Carolina's troubles. Newton completed 270 of 510 passes for 3,509 yards and 19 touchdowns (he tossed 35 touchdown passes in 2015) and his rating dipped from 99.4 to 75.8, according to Pro Football Focus.
  • Outlook: Stopping Newton still tops every opposing defensive coordinator's to-do list when game-planning for the Panthers. Despite the team's struggles last season – Carolina finished 6-10 -- Newton is perhaps one of the most dynamic players in the league. And the Panthers still have one of the NFL's best tight ends in Greg Olsen. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin is still working himself into shape, but can be a threat in the passing game. And Carolina added two new weapons in Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey -- who will help in the short and intermediate passing game. Both are built like running backs, but have the speed and shiftiness of a slot receiver.

5. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

  • When they play in 2017:Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, in Seattle
  • Top plays in 2016: Watch here
  • Summary: Long labeled a running quarterback – and not a pocket passer – Russell Wilson kicked those misconceptions to the curb in 2016, completing 353 of 546 passes for 4,219 yards and 21 touchdowns. Seattle addressed its offensive line in the NFL Draft and bolstered the running game by adding Eddie Lacy in the offseason – all of which will only make Wilson even more dangerous.
  • Outlook: Doug Baldwin (94 catches for 1,128 yards and seven touchdowns) emerged as Wilson's favorite deep threat in 2016 and according to Pro Football Focus, the Seahawks receiver finished with a 1.92 yards per route run average, which was good enough for 25th among receivers. Another weapon at Wilson's disposal – 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham – caught 65 passes for 923 yards and six scores last season. Lacy, who caught 101 passes for 900 yards and six scores coming out of the backfield and should help in pass protection, too.

4. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Sept. 24 at Ford Field in Detroit
  • Top plays in 2016: Watch here
  • Summary: The Lions managed to finish with a 9-7 mark and earn a playoff berth last season – and that was largely due to Stafford, who thrived in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter's offense in 2016. Stafford completed 388 of 594 passes for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, Stafford was in the top 10 in both adjusted completion percentage (76.1) and in passer rating when under pressure (78.2). 
  • Outlook: The Lions' passing game should be even better this season. With receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones and tight end Eric Ebron, Detroit returns a solid receiving core. And rookies Kenny Golladay and Michael Roberts should only bolster that group. Add in running backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick – who, according to Pro Football Focus, combined for two of the top-four receiving grades among running backs – and it's easy to see why the Lions are optimistic.

3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Oct. 22 in Foxborough, Mass.
  • Top plays in 2016: Watch here
  • Summary: Once again Brady came through when the Patriots needed him most in 2016. Along the way the soon-to-be 40-year-old quarterback completed 291 of 432 passes for 3,554 yards and 28 touchdowns while leading the Patriots to another Super Bowl title.
  • Outlook: The Patriots have so many weapons that opposing teams cannot focus on stopping just one player or aspect of their offense. They're unpredictable and force defenses to play honest. Aside from Martellus Bennett leaving for Green Bay, the Pats have virtually everyone returning for 2017 – plus they traded for another home-run hitter in receiver Brandin Cooks to go with Julian Edelman and expect to have a healthy Rob Gronkowski to start the season.

2. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

  • When they play in 2017:Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Atlanta and Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in New Orleans
  • Top plays in 2016: Watch here
  • Summary: As Falcons fans know all too well, the Saints always have a chance when Brees is behind center. And, according to Pro Football Focus, all the Saints quarterback did in his 16th season was finish with the second highest adjusted completion percentage in the league -- 79.6 – and also surpassed the 5,000-yard passing barrier once again with 5,208 yards while tossing 37 touchdowns. Not too shabby for a 38-year-old signal caller.
  • Outlook: The Saints may have traded deep threat Brandin Cooks to the Patriots, but they added Ted Ginn Jr. And even more encouraging for Brees and Co. was the emergence of rookie Michael Thomas in 2016. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas averaged 2.04 yards per route he ran (14th best among receivers) and second among rookies in 2016. He also broke 20 tackles after the catch and dropped only four of the 96 catchable targets sent his way in Year 1. Getting that Saints unit off the field should once again be no easy feat for opposing defenses, including Atlanta's.

1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Sept. 17 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
  • Top plays in 2016: Watch here
  • Summary: After a 4-6 start, Rodgers willed the Packers to a 10-6 regular-season finish in 2016. He also passed for 4,428 yards and tossed 40 touchdowns in the process. Rodgers is one of the best at keeping plays alive. According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers threw for league-best 28 touchdowns on passes in which he threw the ball in 2.6 seconds or longer after the snap and had the league's best passer rating when pressured.
  • Outlook: With Jordy Nelson, Ty Montgomery, Randall Cobb, Devante Adams and Martellus Bennett at his disposal in 2017, the Falcons will have their work cut out for them when it comes to slowing down Rodgers and Co.
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