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3 players who will have the biggest impact on the Falcons’ season

Julio Jones

It may seem ludicrous upon first glance to omit Matt Ryan, the reigning NFL MVP, from this list, but it’s Jones who operates as the engine of the Falcons’ offense. Arguably the NFL’s premier wide receiver, Jones will be counted upon again to elevate a team that’s surely reeling from its collapse in Super Bowl LI.

Jones must be accounted for at all times and his presence alone opens up opportunities for Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel to thrive in the open field. Boasting the ability to run past, around, or through cornerbacks, Jones is a unique weapon for the Falcons and is the piece that makes the rest of the system work.

Only a Super Bowl eludes Jones at this juncture of his career, and for the Falcons to capture their first title in franchise history, the superstar wideout will need to be at his best.

Keanu Neal

When star cornerback Desmond Trufant was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a shoulder ailment last year, Neal took on a larger role in the Falcons’ secondary, belying his rookie status. He’ll be 22 this season, and could take a major jump by developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber safety with an excellent rookie campaign under his belt.

He’s already one of the NFL’s most ferocious open-field hitters, as evidenced by this bone-crushing blow to Saints receiver Willie Snead …

… but there’s much more to his game than highlight-reel attacks. Neal graded as the fourth-best safety in coverage last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and is a veritable candidate to anchor the Falcons’ secondary with Trufant returning to the fray.

Vic Beasley

Beasley broke out in 2016, recording a league-leading 15.5 sacks. However, some analysts wonder if his sophomore season was merely an anomaly, and the 24-year-old could dictate how the Falcons’ defense fares after finishing 27th in points allowed per game last year.

The Falcons’ front seven is bound to improve, with inside linebacker Deion Jones continuing to grow as the unit’s cerebral leader, first-round pick Takkarist McKinley ready to aid the pass rush, and nose tackle Dontari Poe on board to fortify the run defense. Beasley is at the heart of the defensive efforts with a wide array of pass-rushing moves that keep offensive linemen at bay.

Whether Beasley’s breakout season was a fluke or not will be central to the Falcons’ identity this season. If he’s the genuine article, Atlanta should be well on its way toward another deep playoff run.

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