The Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw plenty of room for improvement even after a 48-25 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons that featured five touchdown passes by superstar Tom Brady. 

NFL Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers held a 28-10 lead following the opening drive of the second half, but watched Matt Ryan and the Falcons narrow the deficit to three by the end of the third quarter on Sunday.

Brady's final TD pass of the game and a pair of interception returns for touchdowns by Mike Edwards in the fourth period accounted for the lopsided final score, but the Buccaneers did not sound satisfied afterward. 

"The defence made some huge plays, that's the great thing," Brady told reporters. "Fourth quarter, three-point game and they make a huge stop and [we] went down there and scored, which was good. Then a few big turnovers, so that was great to see.

"Offensively, we grinded out and found a way but obviously we all wish we could have done some things to be more productive. It was a good team effort."

Brady improved to 9-0 in his career against the Falcons and broke one of his own NFL records in the process. 

The 44-year-old has already thrown nine touchdowns through two games this season – a new career-high after two games of a season.

Brady has thrown for at least four passing touchdowns in four successive regular-season games, dating back to last term. It ties Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the NFL's second longest streak since 1950 – one shy of Peyton Manning's streak of five straight games.

Including the playoffs, Sunday was the ninth straight game in which the Buccaneers won while scoring at least 30 points, breaking the league record of eight previously shared with Brady's 2007 and 2011 New England Patriots. 

On the heels of a tense 31-29 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener, Tampa Bay are grateful to be unbeaten but do not believe they have found a rhythm. 

"We left points out there," Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. "Obviously we got 14 out of the defence but we left points out there offensively.

"I haven't seen us getting close to playing consistently yet. Hopefully we'll get there next week because we're going to have to."

The Buccaneers will face the high-powered Los Angeles Rams in Week 3 in their first road game of the season, and Brady agrees that the offence will need to do more going forward. 

"What I think and I'm sure other guys feel the same way is I think we can do better," Brady said. "I really do. I think we have the opportunity, the way the games are flowing and the opportunities we're getting with the ball we can maybe have even more opportunities.

"We were a little loose with the ball, some penalties at different times that have knocked us out of some scoring drives. Some missed throws that I've had, some missed reads. I certainly wish I had made a few better throws tonight.

"But, again, it's good to get the win. We're 2-0 and there's a lot to build on."

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan insisted the team's Super Bowl LI meltdown has "no bearing" on Sunday's NFL clash with Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brady was part of the New England Patriots team that completed the largest comeback in Super Bowl history after rallying past the Falcons in 2017.

Ryan's Falcons surrendered a 28-3 lead as the Patriots sensationally prevailed 34-28 in overtime.

Falcons veteran Ryan will do battle against Brady, who now wears a Buccaneers jersey after leading Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl last season.

But that Super Bowl collapse is not in Ryan's head, with the 36-year-old – who is 0-5 against Brady in his career – discussing the infamous defeat on Wednesday.

"I haven't," Ryan said when he heard a reference to the Super Bowl LI loss. "I never heard of it."

The Falcons lost 32-6 to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1 after Ryan (21-of-35 passing for 164 yards) did not throw a touchdown.

Ryan threw for 164 yards, his fewest in a game since Week 7 of 2019 (159) and his second fewest to open a season in his career, behind only the 161 yards in his first career game in 2008, per Stats Perform.

It was Atlanta's worst loss to open a season since losing by 38 in their opening game in 1987. The Falcons made field goals on each of their first two drives and then either punted or had a turnover on downs in each drive after that.

"Of course we want to win. It's not going to make up for that," Ryan said, discussing the Super Bowl defeat to the Patriots. "You know, it's one of those things. It's part of your past, it's part of what happened.

"But it's got no bearing on this week."

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

It's a passing league. You hear it said so often these days about how the NFL has become all about throwing the ball, rather than running it.  

Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP award in recent years, with the last player from another position to scoop the honour coming back in 2012. 

In the 2020 regular season, 18 players topped 1,000 receiving yards. That was actually a decrease from the previous campaign, when no fewer than 29 achieved the feat, but does not necessarily reflect a reverse on recent trends.  

Stefon Diggs led the way in the previous campaign with 1,535 yards. The Buffalo Bills receiver will be expected to be a key component for his team on offense again in 2021, yet no individual has topped the list for two straight years since Calvin Johnson, who managed to do so in 2011 and again in 2012.  

So who are the top contenders to lead the way this time around? Stats Perform takes a look... 

 

Stefon Diggs 

Acquired by the Bills through a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs enjoyed an outstanding first campaign in Buffalo. He not only led the way for receiving yards but also catches (127) and targets (166), aided by him playing in all 16 games in a year where COVID-19 impacted so many rosters. His 95.9 yards per game ranked second, even though he had just seven plays that went for 25 yards or more. Emmanuel Sanders has arrived during free agency to bolster the receiving group in Buffalo, yet the former Maryland Terrapin undoubtedly remains top of the depth chart and has established a rapport with starting quarterback Josh Allen.  

Calvin Ridley 

Ridley's third year as an Atlanta Falcon saw him emerge as a pass-catching superstar. The 26-year-old had 90 catches from 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. According to Stats Perform data, Ridley recorded a big play of 45.1 per cent of his targets, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL among wide receivers. New head coach Arthur Smith got his chance at a top job after impressing in charge of a run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, but by no means does that mean a receiver cannot prosper in his system. The main reason for Ridley hoping to improve on his previous numbers is the departure of Julio Jones, the franchise legend who did miss games through injury in 2020 but still had 51 catches.   

Justin Jefferson 

Rookie receivers are not meant to settle into NFL life as quickly as Jefferson did with the Minnesota Vikings. The first-round pick selected with the intention of replacing the departed Diggs had 88 receptions for 1,400 yards - surpassing the single-season record by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) back in 2003. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider he had just 70 yards combined in his first two games, yet he made up for lost time with seven 100-yard outings in the weeks that followed. Yards after the catch (YAC) will likely need to rise for him to surpass those numbers, considering he averaged 4.6 yards per reception in 2020, putting him down at 27th among receivers. 

Davante Adams 

A contract year, plus a quarterback with a point to prove (again) are potentially the added ingredients required for Adams to have a record-breaking year in what could potentially be his last for the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is still around after an offseason full of intrigue - and the reigning MVP already fed his top option relentlessly in 2020. Indeed, Adams' average of 10.6 targets and 8.2 receptions per game were the best for any receiver in the NFL, as well as leading the way with 18 touchdown catches and 98.1 yards per outing. His total yardage of 1,374 was tied for fifth, but it should be remembered he played in only 14 games. He recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, 70.1 per cent of the time and led all receivers with 3.9 burn yards per route. With the benefit of three more games than he had in 2020, Adams is perhaps the favourite to usurp Diggs at the top of the leaderboard.   

Tyreek Hill 

Hill averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch and 9.0 receptions a game as part of a high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense. His final total of 87 catches came from 135 targets, showing how he remains a prominent option for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, helping him top 1,000 receiving yards for a third time in four years (he had 860 while playing in 12 games in 2019) and average 3.3 burn yards per route. The Chiefs are coming off a painful Super Bowl loss and may feel they have a point to prove, yet the main concern for Hill's hopes is the presence of a dominant tight end on the roster (more on him to come...). 

DeAndre Hopkins 

In his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, Hopkins set a franchise record for receptions in a season, finishing up with 115 (matching his best season with the Houston Texans, by the way) for a total of 1,407 yards. His 7.2 catches per game ranked third behind only Adams and Diggs, aided by 13 plays that went for 25 yards or more. His YAC number (510) also ranked in the top 10 for all positions, helping him secure a fifth trip to the Pro Bowl. The 29-year-old has missed just two games in his entire career and while he is set to head into his ninth season, there has been little sign of him slowing up in terms of overall output.  

DK Metcalf 

Having gradually emerged in 2019 before making having a noticeable impact in the postseason, Metcalf made a further leap in his second year with the Seattle Seahawks. His big-play ability was demonstrated by his 15.7 yards per catch – Jefferson (15.9) was the only receiver to be targeted at least 120 times and finish with a higher average. Likewise, the Vikings rookie had 16 receptions that went for 25 or more yards, one more than Metcalf managed while working with Russell Wilson. His offseason included a spell on the track, he clocked 10.36 seconds in his 100m heat at the Golden Games and Distance Open in California, but now the focus is back to football, and Metcalf will hope to use that speed to help him improve on his gaudy average of 13.31 burn yards per target from 2020 and take the Seattle offense to the next level.

Best of the rest 

Who else could emerge from the pack? Michael Thomas led the league for receiving yards in 2019 with the help of Drew Brees, only to then endure an unexpected down year last time out. His early trip to the PUP list has likely ended his hopes of regaining the crown before Week 1 has even kicked off. Terry McLaurin had similar numbers to Hill (87 receptions on 134 targets), as well as 486 yards after the catch – a number only topped by four receivers. 

Meanwhile, A. J. Brown topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season with the Titans and trailed only Adams with 3.6 burn yards per route, though he now has former Falcon Jones for company on the roster. Allen Robinson should not be dismissed after having 151 targets on a struggling Chicago Bears offense, while Justin Herbert's emergence with the Los Angeles Chargers helped Keenan Allen average 10.5 targets per outing, second most in the NFL. If a long shot is more your fancy, Diontae Johnson had 88 receptions for 923 yards, but those figures came on 144 targets and Johnson's big-play percentage was a disappointing 21.3.  

Dak Prescott's return to fitness should help the Dallas Cowboys' plethora of receiving options, including Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, while Matthew Stafford's move to Los Angeles will be expected to pad the numbers for Rams duo Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.  

The year of the tight end? 

Blocking is still part of the job but catching balls has become a key aspect of life as an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce had the second-most receiving yards (1,416) and Darren Waller (1,196) also made the top 10. Waller actually had more targets out of the pair, while his 576 yards after the catch put him second behind only running back Alvin Kamara in the entire league. George Kittle made it to four figures in 2018 and 2019, only to then see injury ruin his fourth campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, one in which he was open on 90.5 per cent of targets and led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route. Expect him to try and make up for lost time. 

Then there is Kyle Pitts, the rookie selected fourth overall by the Falcons. Despite playing only eight games, he led the FBS in receiving yards (770) as he racked up 96.3 yards per game, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. If he can translate those ridiculous numbers to the pro game, Pitts will become immediately become prominent in Atlanta's offense, potentially taking away some opportunities that could go to Ridley. 

Longtime NFL assistant coach Greg Knapp died on Thursday from injuries suffered five days earlier, when he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle near his California home.

Knapp, 58, had joined the New York Jets as a passing game specialist in January after spending years as a quarterback guru and play-caller around the league. 

He previously was a quarterbacks coach or an offensive coordinator for an NFL team every year except one between 1998 and 2020, working for the 49ers, Falcons (twice), Raiders (twice), Seahawks, Texans and Broncos. 

Before joining the 49ers staff as an offensive quality control coach in 1997, Knapp spent nine years on the coaching staff at his alma mater, Sacramento State. 

"Greg had such an inner peace about him that people always seemed to gravitate towards," Jets head coach Robert Saleh told the team's website.

"He lived life in a loving way that helped him connect with people from all walks of life in a unique way. In his short time here, I believe the people in this organisation had a chance to experience that connection."

The Jets had entrusted Knapp with preparing the second overall pick in this spring's NFL Draft, Zach Wilson, for life in the NFL. 

Knapp previously had worked with numerous star quarterbacks including Steve Young, Peyton Manning, Michael Vick and Matt Ryan. 

During the Jets' minicamp last month, Knapp had told reporters he found it "invigorating" to work with a young talent like Wilson. 

"It is really cool," Knapp said then. "Both my parents are teachers. It's like, here's the canvas, start teaching them what you know without overteaching them too quickly. So that's the challenge, but it's really exciting."

Knapp is survived by his wife Charlotte and daughters Jordan, Natalie and Camille. 

A. J. Brown and Ryan Tannehill are relishing the arrival of Julio Jones after the Tennessee Titans sealed a trade for the star wide receiver.

The Titans sent a 2022 second-round draft pick as well as a 2023 fourth-round selection to the Atlanta Falcons to get Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick in return.

Jones had been connected with a number of NFL franchises after expressing his desire to leave the Falcons – who struggled to a 4-12 record in 2020 – after 10 successful seasons.

He will now team up with Pro Bowler Brown to catch passes from quarterback Tannehill on a Titans team that also contains Offensive Player of the Year running back Derrick Henry.

"I looked at my phone, and my daughter was laying next to me and I jumped out of bed, and said, 'Is this really real?' I kind of woke my daughter up," Brown – who has said Jones has inspired his journey to the NFL – said about the moment he found out a deal had been done.

"I had to calm down for a little bit. When I got the news, it was kind of crazy. My phone started blowing up. 

"I think this is really huge for Tennessee, not just for me, but this is huge for the city, our team. We are glad to have him.

"The city right now is electric, [fans] are pumped to get a guy like Julio Jones on the team. I think the team loves it, guys are reaching out. I think everyone is really pleased with it."

Jones has topped the NFL for receiving yards twice in his career (2015 and 2018), making the Pro Bowl on seven occasions.

While injuries limited him to nine games and 771 yards in 2020 and he turned 32 this year, the Titans hope Jones can still produce elite play that will help them launch a Super Bowl run.

"It is wild," said Tannehill. "I am excited, I am fired up. I didn't know if it was going to happen or not, and was kind of along for the ride like everybody else. My agent called me and said it was going to happen.

"I am excited. How could you not be excited to play for a guy with the calibre of talent Julio is and has been for his whole career? 

"I am excited to get to know him as a person and welcome him to the team."

Titans general manager Jon Robinson insists Jones will play the team game in pursuit of success despite his illustrious individual achievements.

"In my discussion with Julio, what's his number one goal, it wasn't about [receiving] targets, it wasn't about that, his goal is to win," he said.

"That's the mindset we're looking for, whether that's nine targets, whether that's two targets or no targets. Contribute to winning the football game – that's the mindset he has and that's the mindset we have as a football team.

"He's big, he's fast, he's tough, he's great with the ball in his hands, willing blocker. 

"A lot of the things we ask of our receivers, it's get open, catch and block. He certainly checks those boxes and has done it at a high level for a lot of years in the National Football League."

The Titans have had five straight winning seasons, reaching the AFC Championship game in 2019 before going 11-5 to win the AFC South last year, only to lose to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wildcard round.

With Jones joining Tannehill, Brown and Henry, hopes are high for a deep postseason run.

"We don't set expectations," added Robinson. "Everybody has a chance to go the distance and win the thing. 

"Ultimately, it's our job to try to put a team out there that's going to be competitive, that's going to play stylistically the way that we want to play and I'm excited about this team."

The Tennessee Titans have agreed trade terms with the Atlanta Falcons for wide receiver and seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones.

Jones signed a three-year contract extension with the Falcons in 2019, reportedly worth $66million.

However, the two-time NFL receiving yards leader, who has called Atlanta home since being drafted sixth in 2011, wil join up with the Titans pending a successful medical. 

The full terms include Tennessee trading their 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round selection to Atlanta in exchange for Jones and a sixth-round pick in 2023.

Jones played in nine games last season after suffering a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for the majority of the second half of the campaign as the Falcons (4-12) finished bottom of the NFC South.

The 32-year-old caught 51 passes for 771 yards and three touchdowns in 2020.

Since entering the NFL with the Falcons, Jones has led the league in receiving twice (1,871 yards in 2015 and 1,677 yards in 2018) and three times in yards per game (2015, 2016 and 2018).

Overall, Jones has amassed 948 receptions for 12,896 yards and 60 touchdowns throughout his career.

One of the premier pass-catching weapons in the NFL over the last decade is available for trade, and Julio Jones should have no shortage of suitors, with several contending teams likely to see him as the final piece of the puzzle on offense.

A seven-time Pro Bowler who led the NFL in receiving yards in 2015 and 2018, Jones has the resume of an all-time great.

Since he entered the league in 2011 as the sixth overall pick of the Atlanta Falcons, no player has more receiving yards than Jones, with his 12,896 putting him well clear of Antonio Brown (11,579) in second.

Jones also has 119 receptions of 25 yards or more in that time, again the best mark in the league ahead of T.Y. Hilton (104).

He has topped 1,300 yards in six of the last seven seasons, but a 2020 campaign in which he missed seven games and posted his lowest yards per game average (85.7) since 2012 raises the question about whether Jones can truly be considered among the best of the best at his position.

With a parting with the Falcons seemingly imminent, Stats Perform analysed the data to examine whether Jones is still a receiver who can put a contending team over the top.

Big-play beast

As his career tally of plays of 25 yards or more illustrates, Jones has long since been one of the premier big-play threats in the NFL.

His comparative lack of time on the field in 2020 meant he produced only seven such plays last season. However, even though he played just over half of the games, Jones still proved himself an efficient downfield threat.

Jones produced a 'big play', a burn for 20 yards or a burn for a touchdown, on 27 of his 67 targets, giving him a big-play percentage of 40.2 that was eighth among wide receivers with at least 50 snaps and 50 targets.

It was also a marked improvement on his performance in that metric in 2019.

Over the larger sample size of 157 targets, Jones registered 53 big plays, a percentage of 33.9 that put him 22nd among receivers with a minimum of 50 snaps and targets.

Jones may be getting older, but last season's numbers indicated he is getting better at finding ways to make impact plays down the field.

And he has remained consistent when it comes to regularly winning his matchup with opposing defenders.

Burn notice

At 6ft 3in and 220 pounds, Jones' athleticism and route-running ability has continually made him a nightmare for cornerbacks to defend.

The 4.3 speed with which he entered the league may have declined somewhat, but any drop-off in his physical gifts has not hindered his success in getting the better of those tasked with guarding him.

Jones recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is considered catchable, on 63.7 per cent of his targets in 2019.

That was comfortably above the average of 60.9 for receivers with at least 50 snaps and 50 targets, and he improved on that in 2020, recording a burn percentage of 73.1 ranking sixth among wideouts to meet those thresholds.

Only seven receivers had a higher burn yards per route average than Jones' 3.2 in 2019, and he marginally bettered that last season as he finished with 3.3, level with Justin Jefferson, who set the rookie record for receiving yards with 1,400.

Jones was also seventh in burn yards per target (13.69) among receivers with 50 snaps and targets last year, demonstrating he can still regularly leave defenders trailing in his wake, providing his health allows him to deliver the kind of influential displays that have defined his career.

Situation critical

A lingering hamstring injury restricted Jones' availability in 2020 as the Falcons endured a 4-12 season, and his failure to shake off a soft tissue problem may raise concerns over whether teams can rely on him to stay on the field and contribute.

But franchises interested in investing in Jones' services need not look far for an example of a comparable player performing at a Pro Bowl level at this stage of their career.

Jones turned 32 in February, and can draw inspiration from Larry Fitzgerald, who racked up 1,215 yards during his age 32 season in 2015, helping the Arizona Cardinals to the NFC Championship Game.

Fitzgerald was invigorated by the coaching of Bruce Arians and the opportunity to play with a quarterback of Carson Palmer's talents, and his 2015 campaign was the first of three successive 1,000-yard seasons. Fitzgerald led the NFL in receptions in 2016.

The success of Fitzgerald during that span is instructive is it was partially a product of Arians' abilities as a play-caller and the undoubted upside offered by Palmer, a former number one overall pick who led the NFL in passing touchdowns for the second time in his career in 2015.

Situation plays a substantial role in the performance of any player and Jones could land in one of several excellent spots. A reunion with Kyle Shanahan, who oversaw Jones' most productive season (1,871 yards) in 2015, with the San Francisco 49ers has been mooted.

The New England Patriots and their talented offensive play-caller Josh McDaniels are also credited with an interest in Jones, as are the Baltimore Ravens, who boast a former MVP at quarterback in Lamar Jackson, and the Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson, whose superb accuracy saw him throw an interceptable pass on just 2.64 per cent of throws in 2020.

Jones compares extremely well with Fitzgerald as a physically imposing and dependable receiver who dropped only one pass last season after registering two drops in 2019.

While conventional wisdom would point to him declining as he gets up there in age, the numbers suggest he may in fact be getting better. For the contending team lands him, Jones still has what it takes to be a pivotal element of a potential Super Bowl-winning picture.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver and seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones said he is set to leave the NFL franchise.

Jones signed a three-year contract extension with the Falcons in 2019, reportedly worth $66million.

However, the two-time NFL receiving yards leader – who has called Atlanta home since being drafted sixth in 2011 – has been the subject of trade talks this offseason.

Amid links with the Dallas Cowboys, Jones told FS1's "Undisputed" show: "I'm outta there."

Jones played in nine games last season after suffering a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for majority of the second half of the campaign as the Falcons (4-12) finished bottom of the NFC South.

The 32-year-old caught 51 passes for 771 yards and three touchdowns in 2020.

Jones added: "Right now I wanna win."

Since entering the NFL with the Falcons, Jones has led the league in receiving twice (1,871 yards in 2015 and 1,677 yards in 2018) and three times in yards per game (2015, 2016 and 2018).

Overall, Jones has amassed 948 receptions for 12,896 yards and 60 touchdowns throughout his career.

Highly touted quarterbacks? Check. Oversized stage? Check. Raucous Fans? Check.

A year after holding a virtual NFL Draft in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement due to concerns over the coronavirus, the 2021 draft descended on Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, with Goodell once again sharing bro-hugs with the prospects on stage in front of thousands of vaccinated and mask-wearing fans.

Although the easy chair from Goodell’s basement did make the trip to the stage, this year’s edition of the draft felt much more normal than a year ago – and it began exactly as nearly everyone expected.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall and the New York Jets went with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at number two.

Considered to be the most polished QB prospect in years, Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards in his collegiate career, while going 34-2 as a starter with the Tigers and winning the 2018 National Championship.

Wilson had been linked to the Jets for months after throwing for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdown passes to only three interceptions last season, and New York hopes he can be the franchise’s answer at QB and lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after the recently traded and 2018 No. 3 pick Sam Darnold never lived up to expectations.

A quarterback had also been projected to go third overall ever since the San Francisco 49ers traded up to that position weeks ago, the only question was who – Trey Lance out of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Fields from Ohio State or Alabama national champion Mac Jones.

The tight-lipped 49ers ended weeks of suspense by drafting Lance, who has only played in one game since the 2019 season but led the Bison to the FCS title that year while accounting for 42 total touchdowns without an interception.

With the surprising Lance going to San Francisco, this became just the third time in the common draft era that started in 1967 – and first time since 1999 – quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the NFL draft.

The consensus top five QBs - Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones – had been slated to all get drafted in the top 10, but Fields and Jones were still on the board after 10 picks.

The Chicago Bears decided not to sit on their hands, trading up nine spots with the New York Giants to grab Fields, a dual-threat QB who finished his collegiate career with 5,701 passing yards and 67 TDs through the air.

The Patriots were more patient, selecting Jones with the 15th pick – a spot few believed he would still be available. Jones threw for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns to just four picks in leading Alabama last season, and became the first quarterback selected in the first round during Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure in New England.

Jones also became the final QB selected in the first round, making this only the fourth time at least five QBs were drafted in round number one, along with 2018, 1999 and the famous 1983 draft, when six were selected.

Not only were QBs a hot commodity, so were their targets.

The Atlanta Falcons made Florida’s Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in history when they picked him fourth overall after he had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 TDs in 2020.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins drafted who they hope will be their franchise quarterbacks in the 2020 first round, and this year they each focused on providing them with a playmaker they were familiar with.

Cincinnati selected LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick, teaming him 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, the quarterback who led the Tigers to the 2019 FBS title. In 26 games played together in 2018 and 2019, Burrow targeted Chase 162 times, resulting in 107 receptions for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns.

One pick later, the Dolphins chose Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, reuniting him with college quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s fifth pick. Waddle only appeared in six games last season because of a broken left ankle, but he left Alabama with 106 receptions for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns over three years.

The reunions continued with the 10th pick, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to select 2020 Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to get him back with former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, the 53rd overall pick a year ago. Smith, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2020 with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, was a teammate of Hurts in 2017 and 2018.

While the Bengals, Dolphins and Eagles reunited former teammates, the Jaguars decided to go ahead and just bring aboard one of Lawrence’s teammates from this past season, selecting Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the 25th pick, making this the first time in the common draft era a quarterback and running back from the same school were drafted by the same team in the first round.

Etienne was a workhorse for the past four years with the Tigers, racking up 4,952 rushing yards and 70 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Etienne became the second running back selected in the first round after the Pittsburgh Steelers took Alabama’s Najee Harris one pick earlier.

With the Denver Broncos nabbing Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II ninth overall and the Las Vegas Raiders drafting Crimson Tide offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17, Harris became the sixth player from Alabama drafted in the first round, matching the University of Miami from 2004 for the most players selected from one school in the first round.

While the draft started with offensive players being selected with the first seven picks for the first time ever, the final five picks of the opening round were all defensive players, concluding with the defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selecting linebacker Joe Tryon out of Washington with the 32nd pick.

The Atlanta Falcons selected Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, adding a tight end who has drawn universal acclaim in the pre-draft process. 

Amid a scramble for quarterbacks at the top of the draft order, Pitts was widely considered the best non-QB on the board.

Tight ends have not typically been rated highly in the NFL Draft; although two went in the top 20 in 2019, there were none taken in the first round last year.

But Pitts is a dominant athlete and had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns for Florida in 2020. He ran 216 routes and was targeted 67 times.

The 6ft 6in, 240-pound star led the Gators in receiving TDs, helping QB Kyle Trask top the FBS with 43 passing scores.

Pitts showed his physical prowess as he ranked third among Power 5 tight ends last year with 47 burns – matchups in which he beat his defender that are measured regardless of whether a pass was catchable.

None of his rivals had more burn-touchdowns (15) or burn-yards (849).

Record-breaking Alabama catcher DeVonta Smith was the only Power 5 wide receiver with more burn-touchdowns (26).

There's a new era in Atlanta and, following the hiring of Arthur Smith as head coach, there is plenty of cause for Falcons fans to be hopeful of better days ahead. 

Things can hardly get much worse than in 2020, when the Falcons slumped to a 4-12 record, with head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff fired after an 0-5 start. 

Smith's arrival will foster optimism the offense can scale new heights in 2021, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator having played a pivotal role in revitalising Ryan Tannehill's career.  

But he and new GM Terry Fontenot have some significant decisions to make in a challenging offseason if their partnership is to hit the ground running in 2021. 

Using Stats Perform data, we reflect on the year that was for the Falcons and look at what they will need to do to improve on a rather forgettable campaign. 

Offense 

You will find few quarterbacks who experienced more frustrating seasons than Matt Ryan, who continued to serve as one of the most productive signal-callers in the NFL in 2020. 

He was fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,581 and was tied seventh in big plays, delivering 32 completions of 25 yards or more. 

The big-play element that was clearly present in the Falcons' offense contributed to them finishing the year ninth in scoring efficiency. 

Despite Ryan's performances in leading a prolific group, the Falcons never threatened to contend. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the running game should take a large portion of the blame for that failure.

The Falcons were not a balanced offense, with Atlanta averaging just 3.75 yards per run play. The Pittsburgh Steelers (3.62) were the sole team to fare worse on the ground.

Atlanta's 34 rushes of 10 yards or more were tied for 30th in the NFL, the production from running backs Todd Gurley and Brian Hill not living up to that of Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones in the passing game.

Ridley was tied-fifth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,374 while no pass-catcher had more than his 23 receptions of 20 yards or more.

While the running game needs to improve, the primary reason for the stellar efforts of Ryan and Ridley being wasted was the dismal play of a porous defense.

Defense

Worryingly for a Falcons franchise that invested a great deal in the defense in last year's draft, opponents moved the ball and scored on Atlanta at will in 2020. 

Atlanta ranked 23rd in offensive points allowed, giving up 414, with opposing passing games racking up 7.18 yards per play against the Falcons. 

Just three teams - the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings - were more susceptible to the pass by that measure. 

The Falcons will hope for better out of last year's first-round pick A.J. Terrell, who was consistently exploited by quarterbacks and receivers in a trying rookie season. 

Terrell was targeted 95 times, the fourth-most of any player in the league, and gave up the third-most receptions (64) and joint-most yards (848).

In addition to the secondary struggling, the defensive front did not produce the desired pressure on opposing signal-callers, Atlanta finishing tied-23rd with 29 sacks.

The run defense was a little more of a bright spot, the Falcons 14th in yards per rush allowed with 4.41.

But the fact they still gave up 49 touchdown drives, the joint-eighth most in the league, despite their relative strength against the run, is indicative of the ground game's decreasing influence on offensive production and the issues in the secondary.

Simply put, for the Falcons to have a chance of even challenging the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, the pass defense must make significant strides. The problem, however, is that the Falcons do not have a great deal of resources with which to make sure it does that.

Offseason

There is increasing talk of the Falcons using the fourth overall pick in this year's draft to select Ryan's successor, with Ohio State's Justin Fields, a native of Georgia, a popular choice for them in mock drafts.

Having the option to rid themselves of Ryan's contract, which will see him carry cap hits of over $40million in 2021 and 2022, and instead start a rookie on a significantly cheaper deal, is something that should appeal to the Falcons.

But, regardless of the merits of Smith as a play-caller and the talent the Falcons have on offense, Fields or any other eventual replacement for Ryan will not be set up for success until the Falcons fix the defense.

The issue in that regard is the Falcons are set to be over $12m above an assumed salary cap of $185m.

That may prohibit them from keeping many of the 11 unrestricted free agents they have on defense, or aggressively pursuing potential signings on that side of the ball.

Compensatory picks are still to be revealed, but the Falcons are at present set to have just six selections in the 2021 NFL Draft.

If they do go with a quarterback in the first round, 2021 will likely be Ryan's last as a Falcon. And, should Atlanta prove unable to use their remaining capital to sufficiently improve the defense, the smart money will be on it being another of frustration for the quarterback who came agonisingly close to delivering the franchise its first Super Bowl crown.

The Atlanta Falcons have confirmed an agreement is in place with Arthur Smith to become their next head coach.

Smith has spent 10 years with the Tennessee Titans, the last two of those as their offensive coordinator.

The 38-year-old is set to replace Dan Quinn, who left along with general manager Thomas Dimitroff in October following the Falcons' 0-5 start.

Raheem Morris has been in temporary charge since then and guided the team to a 4-12 record.

Smith has also previously spent two years as the defensive quality assistant for the Washington Redskins from 2007-08.

The Falcons made the announcement on their official website on Friday, 24 hours after the New York Jets reached an agreement in principle with Robert Saleh to become their next head coach.

The Green Bay Packers secured the NFC's top seed on Sunday, while Derrick Henry led the Tennessee Titans to the AFC South title.

Aaron Rodgers again powered the Packers, throwing four touchdown passes in a win over the Chicago Bears.

Despite their loss, the Bears clinched a playoff spot, as did the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, Henry made history as the Titans won the AFC South, while the Washington Football Team claimed the NFC East.

 

RODGERS DOMINATES AGAIN AS PACKERS CLINCH TOP SEED

Rodgers completed 19 of 24 passes for 240 yards and four TDs in the Packers' 35-16 victory over the Bears.

The Packers quarterback connected for TDs with Robert Tonyan, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Dominique Dafney and Davante Adams.

Rodgers finished the regular season with 48 TD passes. Alongside Peyton Manning, they are the only players in NFL history with 45-plus TD passes in multiple seasons, according to NFL Research. They won the NFL MVP in each of the previous three instances.

While Green Bay finished with a 13-3 record, the 8-8 Bears also reached the playoffs.

 

HISTORY FOR HENRY AS TITANS WIN AFC SOUTH

The Titans claimed the AFC South for the first time since 2008 after a thrilling 41-38 win over the Houston Texans.

Henry became the eighth player in history to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a single season.

He had 250 rushing yards and two TDs against the Texans. Of the eight players to achieve the feat, Henry was the only one who needed 200-plus yards in his last game to get there, according to Stats Perform.

A.J. Brown had 151 receiving yards, but the Titans needed Sam Sloman's 37-yard field goal as time expired to edge the Texans.

The Titans became the first team in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and 150-yard receiver in the same game.

 

WASHINGTON WIN NFC EAST AS COLTS, RAMS REACH PLAYOFFS

The Washington Football Team claimed the NFC East thanks to a 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes and two interceptions as Washington (7-9) claimed the division.

The Colts (11-5) reached the playoffs thanks to a 28-14 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Los Angeles Rams (10-6) are also into the postseason after beating the Arizona Cardinals 18-7.

 

Week 17 scores:

Minnesota Vikings 37-35 Detroit Lions
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 44-27 Atlanta Falcons
New England Patriots 28-14 New York Jets
Buffalo Bills 56-26 Miami Dolphins
Cleveland Browns 24-22 Pittsburgh Steelers
New York Giants 23-19 Dallas Cowboys
Baltimore Ravens 38-3 Cincinnati Bengals
Indianapolis Colts 28-14 Jacksonville Jaguars
Tennessee Titans 41-38 Houston Texans
Los Angeles Rams 18-7 Arizona Cardinals
New Orleans Saints 33-7 Carolina Panthers
Green Bay Packers 35-16 Chicago Bears
Los Angeles Chargers 38-21 Kansas City Chiefs
Seattle Seahawks 26-23 San Francisco 49ers
Las Vegas Raiders 32-31 Denver Broncos
Washington Football Team 20-14 Philadelphia Eagles

Chris Godwin paid tribute to Tom Brady after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback starred against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Brady completed 26 of 41 passes for 399 yards, four touchdowns and an interception in the Buccaneers' 44-27 victory.

The 43-year-old joined Peyton Manning as the only players in NFL history with 40-plus touchdown passes in a single season with multiple teams.

Godwin, who had 133 receiving yards and two TDs, hailed the quarterback.

"That's really dope. For a guy that is in the public spotlight so much and criticised so frequently, to still be doing it at such a high level at his age, it's so impressive," he told a news conference.

"Being able to see that every day, watching how hard he works, watching his attention to detail, I'm not surprised but it's definitely well deserved."

Only Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers (three) has had more seasons with 40-plus TD passes than Brady's two.

Asked if he expected to perform so well in his first season with the Buccaneers, Brady was full of praise for his team-mates.  

"Whatever happens for me as a quarterback is reflective of what our group does on offense," he said.

"I love playing with the guys I play with, we've got a great group of receivers, great group of tight ends, very selfless, the backs have done an incredible job and the way the offensive line is playing and protecting gives any quarterback a great opportunity.

"It's a team sport, those are great team accomplishments and just proud of all the guys for what they put in this year.

"Now we're moving into the playoffs and got a great opportunity ahead of us, we've got to go and try to take advantage of it."

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