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  1. Paying a QB $30 Million Is No Longer a Risky Bet—It’s a Bargain Matt Ryan’s contract extension last year set a new milestone for QB salaries. The Falcons were delighted with the deal at the time. They’re even happier after seeing that threshold surpassed so many times since. Is the NFL in a QB salary bubble? As the most important position in sports becomes more expensive, teams have to decide when it makes sense to pay their quarterback big money, and when it’s time to move on. On Wednesday, The Ringer examines the decisions a team faces as its rookie quarterback approaches free agency, how a $30 million QB has become a bargain, and what the next big-money deal might look like. In the spring of 2018, the Atlanta Falcons signed Matt Ryan to a long-term extension which made him the first NFL player to average $30 million per season. It was a milestone salary for a quarterback—the top end of the market had been set at around $25 million for much of the decade. (Ryan was also the first to receive $100 million in guaranteed money.) Once the $30 million threshold had been crossed, it started to be crossed a lot. Ryan’s deal has since been surpassed by deals for Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Ben Roethlisberger, with more likely to follow, including Dak Prescott. Ryan’s deal established the cost of doing business with productive veteran quarterbacks. In a conversation with Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, I mentioned that because quarterback pay is always rising, any good quarterback under contract becomes a bargain so quickly that in a few years … ah, wait. “How many years did you say?” Dimitroff said with a slight chuckle. “Well, maybe now,” I said. “You may be looking at it right now, honestly,” Dimitroff said. I’ve written plenty about what teams can do if they have a cheap quarterback. I’ve talked to the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs this month, specifically, about their timetables to build around Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, respectively, while they’re on their rookie contracts. It’s sort of a sandcastle: nice but temporary. A good, cheap quarterback becomes expensive overnight, and so those plans have an expiration date. Dimitroff has an interesting perspective on how to negotiate with a quarterback: He’s paid Ryan three times, including a first-round rookie deal (back when those were far more expensive), plus two lucrative extensions. Only Pittsburgh’s front office, with Roethlisberger, has been intact long enough to go through each of those negotiations with one quarterback. This experience leads Dimitroff to bring up a semi-popular thought experiment that arises in the football world every few months: What if a team never signed a quarterback to an extension and simply kept finding cheap quarterbacks forever? “I was literally moved to say ‘That’s asinine,’” Dimitroff said of the first time he heard of it. “I understand the idea. But when you’re sitting on this side of the desk, and you think about the precariousness of churning a quarterback out like that, going through a few years, and saying, ‘OK, go, time to find the next one.’ You want to talk about unnerving and unsettling and staying up all night? That’s what a lot of people do who don’t have a quarterback in this league.” Dimitroff has a quarterback, one he drafted with the third overall pick in 2008, and he makes it clear that he enjoys having him. The Falcons had a disappointing season last year, partly due to injuries, and partly due to an offensive line that Dimitroff addressed in this year’s draft. But it was through no fault of Ryan’s: The Falcons ranked fifth in the NFL in yards per play with 6.2, and scored on 43 percent of their drives, fourth best in the league. With the 34-year-old Ryan under contract through 2023, Dimitroff is locking into place the pieces around him. The team re-signed linebacker Deion Jones to a four-year extension worth $57 million, and inked defensive lineman Grady Jarrett to a four-year, $68 million deal. The Falcons are also discussing an extension with receiver Julio Jones just one year after renegotiating his contract. “Yes, of course, you need the proper backups and rounded talent, but I truly believe you win with pillar players,” Dimitroff said. “If you are not taking care of your pillar players, there’s a degradation of your organization, not only on the field, but off the field. So I, humbly, believe we’ve picked our players well, and they are legitimate leaders for us. We’ll look at those players who are our pillar players, and will be dedicated, financially, to taking care of them.” Investing heavily in “pillar players” is made easier by the rising salary cap, which has gone up about $10 million each year, with a total rise of $65 million, since 2013. Ryan and Julio Jones combined for nearly 25 percent of the Falcons’ cap in 2016, a season in which they were just a quarter-and-a-half away from winning the Super Bowl. That would have been by far the highest percentage for the two highest-paid players on a title team since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Most successful teams resemble the Eagles, whose top salary on their Super Bowl–winning team in 2017 accounted for 6 percent of their cap. Luckily for the Falcons, it’s become easier to build a team around a rich quarterback: Ryan accounts for just 8.3 percent of the cap this year. He’s making $44 million in salary this season, the most in his career, but his long-term deal allows the Falcons to lower his cap number to a reasonable $15.8 million. “There has never been one person in this organization—at least to me—I’ve never heard moaning about the payment of Matt Ryan and how it affects not paying other people. Everyone realizes the benefits of having an upper-echelon quarterback,” he said. “There were people out there who said ‘Oh, you can get him for 29-and-a-quarter.’ And I just simply said ‘What are we doing here?’” Dimitroff said. “He’s going to be the top-paid quarterback, and before you know it, he’s not going to be the top-paid quarterback because that’s the way it goes.” That last part is quite important. I wrote earlier this year about the phenomenon of overpaying bad quarterbacks. It’s easy to think about there being two groups: cheap quarterbacks and expensive ones. Notably, a third group has developed: quarterbacks with mega extensions whose deals became cheap as time elapsed. Before his retirement, Andrew Luck, who signed a record-setting deal in 2016, had an average annual salary of $24.6 million—far behind every major quarterback who signed after him, including Wilson ($35 million), Roethlisberger ($34 million), and Rodgers ($33.5 million). Ryan has made $179 million in his career. By the time his contract is due to expire in 2023, he’ll have eclipsed $300 million—it will not have been an overpay. Dimitroff loves athleticism. He believes, along with Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, that “if you’re 10 pounds lighter than most players, but you have a badass persona, you can thrive in this league,” which is true for athletic defenders like Deion Jones. When Dimitroff got the job in 2008, and was facing his first big decision, he wondered whether he should value that in a quarterback, too. “I thought ‘Do I build a quarterback on what I really love? Athleticism?’” he said. Then he thought back to his days in the personnel department in New England. “I grew up in this league being around Tom Brady. How could you want anything different?” That, he said, is why he decided to commit to Ryan, the prototypical passer. He mentions having respect for Bill Polian’s team-building model with the Colts, which basically comprised of getting a franchise player, Peyton Manning, and building everything around him. (Dimitroff jokes that he knows this is heretical coming from a former Patriots employee.) After watching DeSean Jackson destroy the Falcons early in Ryan’s career, Dimitroff told me he realized he needed to find a similar offensive weapon for his quarterback. In 2011, he traded a haul of draft picks to acquire Julio Jones, and is committed to keeping the All-Pro receiver. Jones is the NFL’s all-time leader in career receiving yards per game with 96.7, and will be paid like it soon. “You go as your quarterback goes. I’ve seen the ups and downs of franchises who banked on a quarterback and it not working. I’ve seen the deleterious effects across the organization—not just the offensive side, but the defensive side, the morale of the organization,” he said. “It is so important to build through your quarterback.” The Falcons are doing that, and at $30 million, they think it is a bargain. https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2019/8/28/20833473/falcons-matt-ryan-thomas-dimitroff-julio-jones
  2. https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2018/7/3/17529820/superstar-pass-rushers-danielle-hunter-joey-bosa-jadeveon-clowney Meet the NFL’s New Generation of Superstar Pass Rushers
  3. In Atlanta’s backfield there are no labels. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman can both do whatever their offensive coordinator wants. 15 hrs ago Soon-to-be-MVP Matt Ryan and first-team All-Pro Julio Jones are the two superstar faces of the Atlanta offense’s incredible season, but the team’s two tailbacks are among the league’s best supporting actors. With Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta’s running backs room boasts two of the most electric rushers and pass catchers in the NFL. During the regular season, they combined for 2,482 yards and 24 touchdowns on land and through the air. While Freeman is the nominal starter, it would be unfair to call Coleman a backup. And referring to Atlanta’s setup as “running back by committee” implies that neither player is good enough to be the heavy lifter. Instead, this group defies most traditional labels, and they’re one of the most versatile and dynamic backfield duos in NFL history. Whether it’s running between the tackles, picking up a blitz, or taking a pass out of the backfield, both Freeman and Coleman are equally adept at doing it all. With both backs capable of playing the role of the sustaining bruiser or the fleet-footed space back in the passing game, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan rarely had to worry about tipping plays with formations or personnel. In an era in which “11” personnel (three receivers, a tight end, and a running back) is the prevailing base offense across the league, Atlanta relied on that set less often than every other team. Instead, Shanahan preferred to go with multiple-tight-end and multiple-running-back sets. Those heavier sets allowed the Falcons to run the ball with a little more power, and it worked like a charm: Atlanta finished the year fifth in rushing yards (1,928), tied for third in touchdowns (20), and fourth in yards per carry (4.6). Freeman led the way with 1,079 yards and 11 scores, but Coleman chipped in with 520 yards and eight touchdowns. The Falcons weren’t just running for the sake of running, though. By selling that potent ground game with both Freeman and Coleman, the Falcons were creating the opportunity for Ryan to take shots downfield in the play-action bootleg game. Forty-four percent of the Falcons’ pass plays came on two-plus-tight-end or two-plus-running-back sets, per ESPN’s Mike Clay, and as teams creep farther up into the box, it means there are fewer deep defenders. With Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel running deep, Ryan picked apart vulnerable secondaries all year. https://mobile.twitter.com/NFLFilms/status/819975966193754113?ref_src=twsrc^tfw No other team used play-action more than the Falcons (27.6 percent of their offensive snaps), and Ryan finished the year with a league-high 1,650 yards and 11.3 yards per attempt on play-action passes, connecting for nine touchdowns. The interchangeability of Freeman and Coleman make them ideal representatives of the post-position NFL, where actual designations like running back or receiver are losing more meaning by the day. Sure, both players are dangerous runners, but they both can catch passes out of the backfield or line up on the wing. As such, Shanahan could line the offense up in a traditional three-receiver, two-running-back formation, but he’d still have five receiving options. It puts the defense in a tough spot: To stop the run, you want more of your physical, tackling linebackers on the field, but against the pass, it’s better to have your speedy defensive backs out there. Whatever the opposing personnel prepares for, the Falcons can do the opposite, and Coleman and Freeman will take advantage. Shanahan consistently attacked these mismatches, as Freeman ended the year with 54 catches for 462 yards and two touchdowns, while Coleman added 31 receptions for 421 yards and three scores. It’s hard enough finding one running back who’s as dangerous taking a handoff as he is running a slant, and Atlanta has two of them. When Freeman and Coleman each finished the year with 30-plus receptions for 400-plus yards, in addition to 500-plus rushing yards, they joined a club occupied by just two other backfield tandems in the past 25 seasons. Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas accomplished it with the Saints in 2011, and Detroit’s Reggie Bush and Joique Bell did it in 2013. In both of those previous cases, though, the division of labor and difference in styles were stark: For New Orleans, Sproles was the space back out of the backfield, a jittery tackle breaker in the open field, while Thomas was more of a traditional sustaining back. For the Lions, the same could be said about their Thunder (Bell) and Lightning (Bush) arrangement. For Atlanta, Freeman and Coleman are both three-down backs. Solving Atlanta’s running back riddle now falls to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. There’s no better tactician than Belichick in the league, but he’ll have to come up with his own solutions. Looking at tape can only help so much when you’re playing an offense that no one’s been able to stop.
  4. This is a double post of two excellent articles that kind of go hand-in-hand talking about both sides of the same coin regading how defenses have changed at a lightning fast pace over just the last few years. As always, if you like the articles then please do give their websites a click and help out the people that provide good content like this. First, let's start with this very very good ESPN interview with Matt Ryan where he gives more than the typical stock answers he's known for. And it's also a fascinating subject matter -- how defenses have evolved, even in the last 5 years, to the point that the NFL is almost a different game from when Matt was a rookie in 2008. People that like to question Matt and/or Shanahan, this should shed some light on how little you and I actually know about what these guys really have to go through -- and how much more they know about what they are doing than we ever will. http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17343238/how-atlanta-falcons-qb-matt-ryan-solves-today-nfl-defenses Falcons QB Matt Ryan breaks down what defensive chaos looks like from his side Aug 25, 2016 David Fleming ESPN Senior Writer This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 5 NFL Preview Issue. A DRENCHED AND exhausted Matt Ryan walks off the Falcons' steamy practice field and drops into his seat in the shade with an exaggerated groan. As if practicing in the Georgia heat weren't hard enough, the nine-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl passer also had to contend with his own offensive coordinator in coverage. Kyle Shanahan nearly broke the internet when he jumped in front of a Ryan pass floating toward the end zone -- the ensuing "interception" was a preseason gift for the ever-ready army of trolls. (Relax, everyone, the coach was actually teaching his rookie tight end about route depth.) Ryan laughed off the viral spiral. In 2015, even while struggling to grasp Shanahan's new scheme, he still ranked fifth in passing yards (4,591) and was the NFL's most accurate passer under pressure. Which is why we thought he'd be perfect to offer a tutorial on the current defensive evolution. THE MAG: Here's a number that jumps out: In 2012, there were seven QBs with an average release time under 2.5 seconds. 
In 2015, there were almost triple that, 20. Is that what defenses have done, forced nearly everyone on offense to move faster? RYAN: Pressure schemes are much different than they were nine years ago, no question about it. That pressure forces offenses to route-adjust and throw quicker and get the ball out of the QB's hands. For me, pressure is when they overload one part of your protection. If you're in five-man protection and you've got three guys blocking one way and two guys sliding the other and they figure out how to bring three guys to that short side? To me, that's pressure. That's the biggest thing that's changed. Nine years ago, if you had five-man protection and they brought five people, there wasn't enough design on defense for them to still get you. Now defenses are dropping out tackles and ends, bringing certain linebackers on certain sides, all this extra design to make the numbers not right from a quarterback's perspective. What you end up with is perceived pressure, which is just as bad. That part has been increasingly difficult and probably leads to why so many guys are getting the ball out quicker. In the past, it was all about third downs. Second downs, you never had to worry. Now you do. One of the areas that's changed is second-and-7 or second-and-long, where you're in a passing situation. Now you see a lot of specialty packages come out. It's much more prevalent. Early on in my career, we didn't even used to break down second-and-long. That's how much things have changed. What does that look like from the pocket? It looks like nothing, and that's the challenge. It's now become about reading the defensive front, the way they're lining people up. But it doesn't look like it has any kind of structure to it. You've got five guys just walking around. That's one of the things you see more and more of: nobody with their hand in the dirt. So now you come to the line of scrimmage and on top of everything else you have 
to first identify who the bigs [defensive tackles] are, who the ends are and who the linebackers are. That's tough to do. The idea of a classic matchup between a team's best edge rusher and your giant left tackle seems so antiquated. Then you realize that it was, like, five years ago. That's so different now. Defenses have changed in how they move those guys around so much to try to find your weakest spot and put their best guy there to expose that. When I was getting into the league, you knew exactly where Julius Peppers was gonna line up. But now, with guys like J.J. Watt -- he could be lined up outside, he could be on the left side, he could be on the right side, it doesn't make a difference. He's an equal-opportunity pass rusher -- he goes after everybody from anywhere. Watt is also part of this new trend of hybrid defensive players. That's probably the biggest change: hybrid guys. Look at our rookies: De'Vondre Campbell [fourth-round pick from Minnesota]. You never used to see a linebacker like this, 6-4 and 232 and runs a 4.58. He flies. Back in the day, you'd never have a tight end on a linebacker in third-down situations. It was always a safety walking up. But now with a guy like Keanu Neal [6-0, 211-pound rookie safety, first-round pick from Florida], these guys are interchangeable. You slide him outside and then they've got you thinking, "OK, now we need to pass-protect for a linebacker." You're looking for the 'backer and then, instead, he covers the tight end and they bring a safety off the edge. They got me on that just the other day in practice. Has it gotten to the point where defenses force you to study and prepare and think so much that you end up with paralysis at 
the line of scrimmage? That's why it's so important now to throw everything out from the previous week. Delete everything from your memory and focus on just that next scheme -- that's the biggest thing now about being a quarterback. Every week it's different schemes, different pressures, different hybrids to worry about, so it's control-alt-delete and on to the next defense and then control-alt-delete and on to the next one, for the entire season. If you start seeing ghosts from past games or past schemes, you're just back there thinking too much, like, "Is this this defense or that defense? Am I checking this play off this key or that key?" That's not what you want to happen. Besides the mental pressure applied by the defense, there's pressure on fundamentals to be as efficient as possible, right? The big thing in throwing now, you have to be able to throw from any platform because the timing of when things are open is really short and there's so many variables that affect your footwork. Your feet could be facing right, but things change or break down and now I need to throw left. My hips are facing this way, but, same thing, uh-oh, now I need to throw the other way. Footwork, flexibility, changing arm angles, all those things are very important now because you never really know how a pocket is going to shake out. If you were teaching a young QB to face this next generation of defenses, where would you start? See spots. That's my thing now. The older I've gotten, the more that's become my thing. Don't worry so much about where defenders should be or where they're supposed to be or all those kinds of things. Just see spots. And design most of your pass plays to be spot-read instead of coverage-based. Instead of getting loaded down thinking, "In this coverage, I'm going here; in that coverage, I'm going there." With so many hybrid players, so many variations of schemes and so much pressure up front and all the things that defenses can do, the way to combat all that is to see spots. Aaron Rodgers told me the game moves so fast now, all you really can read are flashes of space and color. Is that what you mean? Windows, yes. You start with a general idea of the coverage, but what's more important now is if you've got a post route that's going [to the deep middle], I need to be seeing this spot of the field, with 
this spacing, and if that window's not open within this certain timing, then you move on to that next spot and then to the next spot. You've got to feel it now more than ever. Do these snapshots open and close like a camera lens? And can you prolong them? Yes, so the key becomes doing things like having your head facing this way to fool the defense, but actually I'm looking at this lens over here, watching out of the corner of my eye to see if it opens, without showing the defense that's what I'm doing. Being able to move somebody to create that little bit of extra space needed to fit 
the ball in there, that's what's important for quarterbacks now. It's about kinesthetic awareness. Spatial awareness. The game moves so fast now, understanding space by reading body language is probably the most important thing. We're into neurology and subconscious processing. I mean, when QBs get together, do you guys lament the good old simple days, like five years ago? We are under constant barrage in the pocket now. Facing it requires a certain feel, a sixth sense. Because the minute you're looking at the edge rush and not downfield, you're toast. That's what separates quarterbacks now, the ability to process all that information in a millisecond, make a good decision based off that snapshot and then to physically be able to get the ball to where you want it to go. I just realized we haven't even gotten to all the physical challenges of playing QB yet. Exactly.
  5. Robert Mays (formerly of Grantland) penned this feature about Julio Jones for new website The Ringer. Click this link (because Mays is cool and deserves your clicks): https://theringer.com/julio-jones-atlanta-falcons-3fa47fb03461#.iolreef9r and read the article.
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